Space Fission

Neutron Bytes Space Fission Page

This page on Neutron Bytes features news and information about applications of nuclear energy in space for both scientific exploration and commercial uses.

If you work in this area, or know someone who does, please send me notices about your activities so they can be noted on this page. Press releases, etc., should be sent to: neutronbytes [at] gmail [dot] com

The page is a combination of resource listings and news reports. The page features short excerpts from news reports along with links to the full text. Longer reports will appear in the main blog page.


  • Interesting Links
  • Space Nuclear News – Recent Clips
  • InfoGraphics

Interesting Links (Updated 08/02/19)

Space Nuclear News – Recent Clips

The archive of previously posted clips is available at Space Fission.

08/12/19 Kilopower Nuclear Reactor for Mars Outpost Could Be Ready for Deep Missions by 2022

A new type of nuclear reactor designed to power crewed outposts on the moon and Mars could be ready for its first in-space trial just a few years from now, project team members said.

A flight test is the next big step for the Kilopower experimental fission reactor, which aced a series of critical ground tests from November 2017 through March 2018. No off-Earth demonstration is on the books yet, but Kilopower should be ready to go by 2022 or so if need be, said Patrick McClure, Kilopower project lead at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

  • News Items about Nuclear Incident in Russia August 8, 2019

08/15/19 Economist An accident in Russia points to the risks of atomic aviation

America’s experience has not, however, deterred Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. In March 2018 he announced the development of a Pluto-like missile called Burevestnik (“petrel”, a bird regarded by sailors of old as a harbinger of storms). This has since been tested in Novaya Zemlya, and has crashed several times.

On August 8th there was another accident ascribed by many observers to Burevestnik. Seven scientists perished in a rocket explosion on an offshore platform near Arkhangelsk. The damage was widespread. Some reports suggest that on August 13th Nyonoksa, a village 40km away, was almost evacuated after radiation there exceeded background levels.

Russia has admitted that an “isotope power source” was being tested, and Rosatom, the country’s atomic-energy agency, has said a “nuclear battery” was involved. Some Russian sources suggest it was this—rather than a reactor—which failed, exploding when it was pulled from the water.

08/12/19 – New York TimesU.S. Officials Suspect New Nuclear Missile in Explosion That Killed 7 Russians

American intelligence officials are racing to understand a mysterious explosion that released radiation off the coast of northern Russia last week, apparently during the test of a new type of nuclear-propelled cruise missile hailed by President Vladimir V. Putin as the centerpiece of Moscow’s arms race with the United States.

Thursday’s accident happened offshore of the Nenoksa Missile Test Site and was followed by what nearby local officials initially reported was a spike in radiation in the atmosphere.

Late Sunday night, officials at a research institute that had employed five of the scientists who died confirmed for the first time that a small nuclear reactor had exploded during an experiment in the White Sea, and that the authorities were investigating the cause.

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“I’ve generally been of the belief that this attempt at developing an unlimited-range nuclear-powered cruise missile is folly,’’ said Ankit Panda, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s unclear if someone in the Russian defense industrial bureaucracy may have managed to convince a less technically informed leadership that this is a good idea, but the United States tried this, quickly discovered the limitations and risks, and abandoned it with good reason.”

08/10/19 Reuters U.S.-based experts suspect Russia blast involved nuclear-powered missile

U.S.-based nuclear experts said on Friday they suspected an accidental blast and radiation release in northern Russia this week occurred during the testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile vaunted by President Vladimir Putin last year.

Two experts said in separate interviews with Reuters that a liquid rocket propellant explosion would not release radiation.

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They said that they suspected the explosion and the radiation release resulted from a mishap during the testing of a nuclear-powered cruise missile at a facility outside the village of Nyonoksa.

“Liquid fuel missile engines exploding do not give off radiation, and we know that the Russians are working on some kind of nuclear propulsion for a cruise missile,” said Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists.

Russia calls the missile the 9M730 Buresvestnik. The NATO alliance has designated it the SSC-X-9 Skyfall.

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Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said he believed that a mishap occurred during the testing of the nuclear-powered cruise missile based on commercial satellite pictures and other data.

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08/10/19 New York Times Russia Confirms Radioactive Materials Were Involved in Deadly Blast

. . .  Then on Friday, the Russian news media reported that a specialized ship used for collecting and storing liquid nuclear waste from the country’s nuclear-powered icebreaker program had sailed into the area.

The explosion on Thursday occurred at a naval weapons testing site near the village of Nenoska that has been used for missile tests. The nuclear company’s statement did not say whether the explosion or radiation exposure had killed its employees.

Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, interpreted the presence of Rosatom nuclear engineers at the test site as confirming “the version that the military could have been experimenting with the newest rocket with a nuclear power unit.”

08/09/19 ReutersMoscow acknowledges mysterious rocket explosion involved nuclear workers

Russia’s state nuclear agency acknowledged for the first time on Saturday that nuclear workers were involved in an explosion during a rocket engine test that caused a spike in radiation in a nearby city.

The agency, Rosatom, said five people killed in the blast were its staff members, and the accident involved “isotope power sources”, giving no further details.

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08/10/18 NBC MACH Huge asteroid misses Earth but spotlights threat posed by space rocks — Experts say we must do more to protect our planet.

An asteroid bigger than the Eiffel Tower hurtled past Earth early on Saturday at a speed of 10,400 miles per hour, missing us by 4.6 million miles — not quite a close shave, but not so far in astronomical terms.

Had the fast-moving space rock, dubbed 2006 QQ23, been following a different trajectory, it could have slammed into our planet with an explosive force of up to 500 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

But if 2006 QQ23 is no cause for alarm, it’s a 1,150-foot reminder that somewhere in the cosmos another big and as-yet-unseen asteroid could be on a collision course with Earth.

“It’s 100 percent certain that we’re going to get hit, but we’re not 100 percent certain when,” says Danica Remy, president of the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Mill Valley, California, that’s working to protect the planet from asteroids.

Experts in so-called planetary defense are working on technologies to deflect large asteroids headed our way, but scientists say more needs to be done to detect them in time to take effective action. NASA is mounting a mission to test a system for deflecting an asteroid.

08/04/19 ( Mars 2020 Rover Gets Its Nuclear Battery

NASA’s next spacecraft on Mars is getting a nuclear battery to do science on the Red Planet. The Mars 2020 rover will soon be fueled using a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which is essentially a battery to keep it warm and productive on its mission in search of signs of habitability on Mars.

Mars 2020 isn’t alone in using nuclear power, as a host of other NASA spacecraft — 27 in all — have also used nuclear power. Some examples include the Voyager missions in interstellar space, the New Horizons mission that went past Pluto, and Curiosity — Mars 2020’s predecessor rover on the Red Planet.

Production of plutonium-238 is the main source of energy for spacecraft that cannot rely on solar power, usually because the craft is too far from the sun, or on a world where the sunlight is too weak to generate enough power.

A 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office said that there was enough plutonium-238 in stockpiles at that time for space missions planned through the 2020s. There were, however, long-term issues with plutonium-238 production, including reactor availability, technical matters with chemical processing, and workforce hiring and training.

In 2018, citing progress with stockpile management, NASA said plutonium would be available for its next Discovery-class mission, which will announce Step 1 selections in 2020 and the final selections in 2021.

The nuclear battery on Mars 2020 will produce about 110 watts of electrical power through the natural decay of plutonium-238 into uranium-234. The energy will then be converted to electricity using thermocouples (devices that generate voltage).

The mission is targeted to land at Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021; NASA says that the rover is the first of it’s kind that can retarget its point of touchdown on the fly while landing. If the technology works, it could help with crewed missions to the Red Planet in a future decade.

July 12, 2019  Ohio State University  Ohio State Launches Nuclear Propulsion R&D Joint Effort with BWXT

The Ohio State University College of Engineering and a subsidiary of BWX Technologies, Inc. (BWXT) have announced a joint interdisciplinary research effort to advance nuclear thermal propulsion for space flight missions.

Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) offers the potential to significantly reduce travel time for spacecraft, especially for deep-space destinations in the solar system at distances of Mars and beyond. Additionally, the significant power and specific impulse improvements will enable new and innovative flight trajectories, and eventually reduce the time astronauts are exposed to harmful cosmic radiation while transiting in deep space.

BWXT is a leading supplier of nuclear components and fuel to the U.S. government, and is currently working for NASA under contract to reduce risk for NTP development as well as conduct a mission study for a potential flight demonstration.

Later this year, Ohio State and BWXT also will host a dedicated research conference focused on the interdisciplinary aspects of nuclear thermal propulsion. Coordinated by the university’s Battelle Center for Science, Engineering, and Public Policy in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, the conference will convene global technical, policy, and administrative leaders and help focus specific areas of research.

06/27/19 Nuclear Powered Drone Set for Titan MissionNASA’s Dragonfly Will Fly Around Titan Looking for Origins, Signs of Life

NASA has announced that our next destination in the solar system is the unique, richly organic world Titan. Advancing our search for the building blocks of life, the Dragonfly mission will fly multiple sorties to sample and examine sites around Saturn’s icy moon.

Dragonfly will launch in 2026 and arrive in 2034. The nuclear energy powwered rotorcraft will fly to dozens of promising locations on Titan looking for prebiotic chemical processes common on both Titan and Earth.

Dragonfly marks the first time NASA will fly a multi-rotor vehicle for science on another planet; it has eight rotors and flies like a large drone. It will take advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere – four times denser than Earth’s – to become the first vehicle ever to fly its entire science payload to new places for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials.

May 23, 2019  – INL to help power next year’s Mars mission

Space nuclear power program previously worked on Mars rover, Curiosity, and New Horizons probe

(Idaho Falls Post Register) When the next Mars rover launches into space in July 2020, it will be powered by a piece of Idaho.

The radioisotope power system that powers the rover, a vehicle that can land on and explore the surface of Mars, will be assembled and tested at the Materials and Fuels Complex at Idaho National Laboratory.

The New Horizons probe that launched in 2006 and flew past Pluto in 2015 also was powered by a system designed and tested at INL, as was the last Mars rover, Curiosity, which was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in November 2011 and has been exploring Mars ever since landing there in August 2012. Earlier this year New Horizons flew past Ultima Thule, which is 1 billion miles beyond Pluto.

The next rover, which has yet to be named, is planned for launch in July 2020 and is expected to land on Mars in February 2021. Due to the alignment of Earth, Mars and the sun, a new rover can only be launched in a three-week window every 26 months, which drives NASA’s, and in turn INL’s, timetable.

“Every time there’s a launch window, we want to send something to Mars,” said Steve Johnson, director of Space Nuclear Power and Isotope Technologies at INL.

INL is in charge of procurement for the power systems, while a private contractor builds them. The power systems are then assembled at INL using special handling techniques to shield workers from the plutonium fuel. And, they are tested in a vacuum chamber that simulates the conditions and the rotation they will face in space.

The rover’s power system is fueled by plutonium-238, which gives off heat as it decays and has an 88-year half-life. The thermocouples, a device consisting of two different conductive materials joined together and kept at different temperatures, convert the heat into electricity.

INL also works with Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee at various stages of the power system’s development. Johnson said work will start at INL to fuel the power system this summer, and start testing in August or September. He expects to be done with testing by Christmas.

05/22/19 – Space News – Momentum builds for nuclear thermal propulsion

With congressional funding and industry support, nuclear thermal propulsion technology is making progress for potential use on future NASA deep space missions, although how it fits into the agency’s exploration architectures remains uncertain.

The House Appropriations Committee approved May 22 a commerce, justice and science (CJS) appropriations bill that offers $22.3 billion for NASA. That funding includes $125 million for nuclear thermal propulsion development within the agency’s space technology program, compared to an administration request for no funding.

“The bill’s investment in nuclear thermal propulsion is critical as NASA works towards the design of a flight demonstration by 2024,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), ranking member of the CJS appropriations subcommittee.

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Powering Deep Space Missions-742x960-01.png

The Last Question

Q: How can the threat to human existence posed by the heat death of the universe can be averted?

A: There is insufficient data for a meaningful answer.

Source: Issac Asimov “The Last Question” Science Fiction Quarterly, 1956.

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