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Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP): A proven growth technology for human NEO/Mars exploration missions

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3 Author(s)
Stanley K. Borowski ; NASA Glenn Research Center, 21000 Brookpark Road, Cleveland, OH 44135 ; David R. McCurdy ; Thomas W. Packard

The nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) represents the next “evolutionary step” in high performance rocket propulsion. Unlike conventional chemical rockets that produce their energy through combustion, the NTR derives its energy from fission of Uranium-235 atoms contained within fuel elements that comprise the engine's reactor core. Using an “expander” cycle for turbopump drive power, hydrogen propellant is raised to a high pressure and pumped through coolant channels in the fuel elements where it is superheated then expanded out a supersonic nozzle to generate high thrust. By using hydrogen for both the reactor coolant and propellant, the NTR can achieve specific impulse (Isp) values of ~900 seconds (s) or more - twice that of today's best chemical rockets. From 1955-1972, twenty rocket reactors were designed, built and ground tested in the Rover and NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications) programs. These programs demonstrated: (1) high temperature carbide-based nuclear fuels; (2) a wide range of thrust levels; (3) sustained engine operation; (4) accumulated lifetime at full power; and (5) restart capability - all the requirements needed for a human Mars mission. Ceramic metal “cermet” fuel was pursued as well, as a backup option. The NTR also has significant “evolution and growth” capability. Configured as a “bimodal” system, it can generate its own electrical power to support spacecraft operational needs. Adding an oxygen “afterburner” nozzle introduces a variable thrust and Isp capability and allows bipropellant operation. In NASA's recent Mars Design Reference Architecture (DRA) 5.0 study, the NTR was selected as the preferred propulsion option because of its proven technology, higher performance, lower launch mass, versatile vehicle design, simple assembly, and growth potential. In contrast to other advanced propulsion options, no l- rge technology scale-ups are required for NTP either. In fact, the smallest engine tested during the Rover program - the 25,000 lbf (25 klbf) “Pewee” engine is sufficient when used in a clustered engine arrangement. The “Copernicus” crewed spacecraft design developed in DRA 5.0 has significant capability and a human exploration strategy is outlined here that uses Copernicus and its key components for precursor near Earth object (NEO) and Mars orbital missions prior to a Mars landing mission. The paper also discusses NASA's current activities and future plans for NTP development that include system-level Technology Demonstrations - specifically ground testing a small, scalable NTR by 2020, with a flight test shortly thereafter.

Published in:

Aerospace Conference, 2012 IEEE

Date of Conference:

3-10 March 2012