Nukes in Spaceeeeeee
May 21, 2020 1:16 PM   Subscribe

 
Let's hope they don't blow up in our atmosphere before they get to space...
posted by Windopaene at 1:25 PM on May 21 [10 favorites]


It's possible, but it's not likely.

This article could have been written at any time during the last 60 years. Everyone knows the potential advantages to nukes; everyone also knows the disadvantages: expensive development, untested materials, hard-to-test designs, difficult regulations, and very few people working in this field compared to the vast numbers working in other fields.

Look, I used to be a rocket scientist and I'm in little old New Zealand. We're not exactly known for our space industry. Despite that, I know two start-ups working on electronmagnetic propulsion and we've a company (RocketLabs) that's building and launching with a couple of hundred staff, many of whom are propulsion engineers. The number of scientists and engineers in the country with the background to even consider working on nuclear rockets is zero.

The US spent something like US$2 billion on nuclear thermal rockets in the 1960s. All they discovered were the disadvantages.

Until the disadvantages change, nothing's going to happen.
posted by happyinmotion at 1:26 PM on May 21 [37 favorites]


As an aside, some of the best discussion of nuclear space, and the history of nuclear space happens on Twitter, from these three:
ToughSF
Casillic
Alex Wellerstein

Beyond NERVA is doing a deep dive into the history of this whole field, uncovering all the options that have been considered. Liquid-core nuclear thermal rockets, with the liquid fuel held in place by spinning the whole core and the hydrogen propellant heated by bubbling through the liquid? Yup, that's in there.

As someone with a scientific background in materials science, I like to read about these studies in the same manner that people like to watch trains crash.
posted by happyinmotion at 1:42 PM on May 21 [12 favorites]


My father was an Aerospace Engineer in the 50's and 60's. He was in R&D and did extensive work on the Nuclear powered bombers. There were two big problems that killed them. What happens when one crashes, (A common occurrence in aircraft) and the radioactive exhaust. Both of these problems remain with the rockets. Even if they don't light them off in the atmosphere. They would have to get them very far from earth before lighting them off to avoid creating a radioactive debris field languishing around earth. Since the initial stages would be chemical rockets atmospheric crashes would be just as common as today.
posted by shnarg at 1:46 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]


Let's hope they don't blow up in our atmosphere before they get to space...

I'm certain that the people behind the project have been able to find consultants who will assure the public that the likelihood of catastrophe is small.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:52 PM on May 21 [15 favorites]


Eh, been done, though not exactly successfully.

Russia has also put several nuclear reactors into space, most of which have not exploded.
posted by ckape at 2:31 PM on May 21 [2 favorites]


As an aside, some of the best discussion of nuclear space, and the history of nuclear space happens on Twitter, from these three:
ToughSF
Casillic
Alex Wellerstein


Alex Wellerstein is a national treasure. I follow him on reddit too (/u/restricteddata) and he's brilliant. His big thing is NUKEMAP but he has a true depth of knowledge about nuclear projects (and especially nuclear secrets).

In case you're looking for more on the subject of nukes in general: I really enjoyed reading James Mahaffey's Atomic Accidents which is as advertised: the history of atomic accidents which does delve into some of the atomic propulsion issues. And although it doesn't spend a lot of time on atomic propulsion, Eric Schlosser's Command and Control is a masterpiece regarding atomic secrecy and the close calls the US has had with nukes. And if you can still sleep after all of that, The Dead Hand by David Hoffman is a great book on the history of weapons of mass destruction and the issues with keeping said weapons contained.
posted by ensign_ricky at 2:39 PM on May 21 [4 favorites]


Given that there is currently about 4.5 billion tons of uranium floating around in the world ocean, I don't think that even 100kg of the stuff being dispersed into the Atlantic is going to make much of a difference to anything.

When the proposal involves plutonium, large amounts of mercury or sodium or some other highly reactive metal, i get twitchy. A helium cooled uranium reactor shouldn't involve anything remotely as threatening as the hypergolic fuels used for satellite thrusters. Liquid metals are bothersome for use in Earth orbit as much as they are for risks from launch failure. Any leak or intentional coolant discharge (as some Soviet satellites did as part of their decomissioning) means a bunch of pellets of sodium or mercury or whatever whizzing around like so many bullets. Not great.
posted by wierdo at 2:45 PM on May 21 [4 favorites]


My father was an Aerospace Engineer in the 50's and 60's. He was in R&D and did extensive work on the Nuclear powered bombers.

Shnarg, that's so cool!

I'm a nuclear engineer writing a book about the US's aircraft nuclear propulsion program in the 1950s. If you're interested, I'd love to talk with you more about your dad's work.
posted by leslietron at 2:55 PM on May 21 [4 favorites]


This article makes it sound like after the late 60s, NASA just up and quit on nuclear propulsion, but aside from the way the article really seems to be cramming together Ground-to-Orbit lift and orbit and deep space propulsion (first paragraph says "next generation of rockets" and then pivots to in-space propulsion out of what, laziness?), it also forgets that NASA never entirely gave up on the idea and keeps working on ways to do it as safely as possible, and also at a cost that is feasible. It's been only 15 years since the last try with Project Prometheus.
posted by tclark at 2:56 PM on May 21


Given that there is currently about 4.5 billion tons of uranium floating around in the world ocean, I don't think that even 100kg of the stuff being dispersed into the Atlantic is going to make much of a difference to anything.

That's presuming an even dilution and no concentration. If there's anything we've learnt about pollution in biological systems, it's that they are great at concentrating nasties to levels that they cause problems.

But the explosion risk for nuclear rockets is over-played. They deliberately blew one up in 1965, the Kiwi-TNT test. (My presumption about the 1960s is that everyone was on drugs.)

They set the reactor to go prompt critical and it kicked off with an explosion equivalent to a hundred kilos of TNT. This vapourised more than a quarter of the core and parts landed 700 metres away. This would have killed anyone within a few hundred metres, mostly from the heat not the radioactivity. That's probably less immediately lethal than a big chemical rocket exploding. They had to clean up radioactive material from about a kilometre around. That's expensive but a manageable job.

I'm not saying you'd want this going off in a city, but it's not much more dangerous than a flying tank of a hundred tonnes of the usual rocket fuel.

No, the real problem is the technical risk - it's going to cost lots of money to develop, have a high chance of project failure due to underperformance or unexpected technical issues. For example, the performance depends directly upon how hot you run the core. When the Kiwi design was running hot enough to have good performance large lumps of the fuel rods would break off and fly out the back of the reactor. Run it cold enough for that not to happen and the performance wasn't good enough to bother with.
posted by happyinmotion at 3:08 PM on May 21 [4 favorites]


Project Orion T-Shirts would be cool.
posted by clavdivs at 5:33 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]


Project Orion T-Shirts would be cool.

With a ground-launched Orion you don't need to worry about accidentally releasing radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:38 PM on May 21 [4 favorites]


Russia was actively working on one of these at least up to last year. In August a prototype exploded and killed at least 5 people.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 6:30 PM on May 21 [3 favorites]


I'm certain that the people behind the project have been able to find consultants who will assure the public that the likelihood of catastrophe is small.

Zat's not my department.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:31 PM on May 21 [7 favorites]


This is going to revolutionize satelite.io
posted by Reverend John at 7:00 PM on May 21 [2 favorites]


ensign_ricky, you may be interested in A Review Of Criticality Accidents, which looks at industrial accidents involving accidental nuclear chain reactions, and is a good reminder that this stuff has a supply chain and workers involved.
posted by sixswitch at 7:46 PM on May 21 [4 favorites]


My eyeballs misread this as "To safely explode the solar system and beyond."
posted by Gotanda at 8:47 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]


Wimps. Orion or nothing.
posted by lhauser at 8:54 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]


Seriously. I see the difference between terrestrial and space bound stuff. But, seen a lot of pro-nuclear shit of late. Terrestrial nuclear seems to have no benefits versus solar/wind, so now, let's suggest it's viable for space shit? Umm, no.
posted by Windopaene at 9:22 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]


Look, I used to be a rocket scientist and I'm in little old New Zealand. We're not exactly known for our space industry.

brb copyrighting "kiwipunk"
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:45 PM on May 21 [2 favorites]


large lumps of the fuel rods would break off and fly out the back of the reactor

Who has a problem with that? We still have by far most of the fuel rod available for the fissioning.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:23 AM on May 22 [2 favorites]


That's presuming an even dilution and no concentration. If there's anything we've learnt about pollution in biological systems, it's that they are great at concentrating nasties to levels that they cause problems.

The existing concentration is high enough that the question of bioaccumulation risk is completely answerable. I'm pretty sure it has been answered, though I don't have a reference to hand.
posted by wierdo at 3:40 AM on May 22


After 60 years of stagnation...

Stagnation? Or an overall acceptance that we really shouldn't do this?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:12 AM on May 22 [3 favorites]


sixswitch, whoa! That's a great document! That should keep me inside for a while this weekend. Thank you so much!
posted by ensign_ricky at 6:56 AM on May 22


Terrestrial nuclear seems to have no benefits versus solar/wind
Not needing orders of magnitude more long-term energy storage and larger continent-spanning grids than we've ever produced before is a benefit. Though, in the decade+ that new nukes take to get built, we could probably make solid progress even on that.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 7:13 AM on May 22


you may be interested in A Review Of Criticality Accidents

Good-bye productive afternoon, I'll be busy reading this...
posted by mikelieman at 10:02 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]


Whoa! The criticality review is indeed a fascinating read. Thanks for sharing.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 11:14 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]


Added to activity so I can return later and soak in this wonderful nerd bath.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:02 PM on May 22


Just long as a rat can still bite my sister Nell.
posted by nothing.especially.clever at 2:33 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]


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