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Nuclear Propulsion System for Mars Mission


Development of the Conceptual Project of Nuclear Thermal Power Propulsion System (NTPP) for Space Exploration. Conducting of Fuel Testing in the IVV-2 Reactor. Development of Principles to Ensure Nuclear and Radiation Safety of NTPP...

Tech Area / Field

  • SAT-EXP/Extraterrestrial Exploration/Space, Aircraft and Surface Transportation
  • FIR-REA/Reactor Concept/Fission Reactors

8 Project completed

Registration date

Completion date

Senior Project Manager
Tocheny L V

Leading Institute
Federal State Unitary Enterprise Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering named after N.A.Dollezhal, Russia, Moscow

Supporting institutes

  • VNIITF, Russia, Chelyabinsk reg., Snezhinsk\nKurchatov Research Center, Russia, Moscow\nNPO Lutch, Russia, Moscow reg., Podolsk


  • Aerojet, USA, CA, Sacramento\nCEA / DRN / DMT/CEN Saclay, France, Saclay\nTechnische Universität München, Germany, Munich

Project summary

For more then 30 years in the former USSR research, design and experimental work was being done, which formed the basis for designing nuclear thermal propulsion ( NTP ) with solid core, made of ceramic materials, providing specific impulse about 900 s. Also unprecedented in the world practice the operation outlet temperature of hydrogen has progressed up to 3100 K within more then an hour of permanent work, which outperforms the results of NERVA program, USA. Leading USA specialists ( representatives of Department of Energy, USA, National Laboratories Sandia, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Idaho and Argonne National Laboratory, firms Rocketdyne, Aerojet, Babcock & Wilcox, Westinghouse and others) were informed on the results, obtained by Soviet research workers, when visiting RDIPE, SPA " Luch", RSC "Kurchatov Institute", SB RDIPE and Semipalatinsk Test Area. Research and technique potential, present in Russia, working in the field of new high temperature nuclear technologies, can provide the concept of nuclear thermal power propulsion in the shortest possible time, applicable for Mars mission, based on the results of designing technologies applicable in defense, which are unique, no analogs in the world.

If in Russia in a given time, while nuclear thermal propulsion programs have been advancing in the both countries, main resources and strength were aimed to design high temperature fuel technologies, based on solid solutions of carbides U, Zr, Nb and the reactor itself, including all its components, men in USA, according to the analysis of the programs' results and declarations of specialists, main attention was paid to finding engineering solutions, concerning the propulsion in whole, its components and units.

Never the less, the aim of designing a serial thermal propulsion and, moreover, nuclear thermal power propulsion was not achieved neither in Russia, nor in USA, though more then 2 billion $ were spent for the named program in USA and less significantly in the former USSR.

Analysis of the results of the NTP programs, completed by now in USA and Russia, shows , that mutual potential of technical solutions and technologies provided presents practically a full set, necessary to develop NTP and NTPP. If we join the potentials of the both countries, then we can realty decrease the total cost of developing such a complicated engineering object, but even in this case the funding should be not less, then 3-3,5 billion US $, with main expenditures related to developing terrestrial in-pile test faculties for the evaluation of the reactor, as well as NTPP in whole.

Developing the concept of NTPP for Mars mission is a first step on the long way to developing such system. The fact should be stressed, that using such systems is not limited with the Mars mission application. It is also applicable for solving the global problems of space exploration in the interests of mankind:

- creating power platforms ( flying plugs) for communication, location, monitoring;

- creating automatic space tugs;

- creating asteroid defense devices for the Earth etc.

The project will contain the following main blocks:

1. The NTPP project with 34 thrust and electric power not less then 100 kW with reactor core, built on base of developed high temperature fuel composite of solid solutions of carbides U, Zr, Nb.

2. Completing in-pile test series of fuel in short-term ( for thrust) and long term ( for power generating) operation.

3. Designing ampule devices for testing fuel burning in IVV-2M reactor, which is characteristic of power generating conditions.

4. Designing the principles of nuclear and irradiation safety of NTPP it every stage of development and operation. Dissolving these problems with determine the quantity and requirements of the test facilities, needed for development.

In the work under this project National Laboratories Sandia, Los-Alamos and Idaho National Laboratories, firms Aerojet, Babcock &. Wflcox will participate, which had signed certain contracts with the Russian specialists in 1991-1993 for doing research work concerning some questions related to designing NTPP of different objectives.

The present project will help using new high temperature reactors for space application to the interests of designing NTPP for Mars mission, which could be considered as a direct contribution of Russia into further space exploration. Our suggestion is a way to start real partnership between Russian organizations and companies and national laboratories of USA. It could make a very good start to mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of technique, determining the way of development of the civilization, not only for the research workers of USA and Russia, but win also help to advance technical cooperation with the European countries and Japan.

Further on the present project could gain international status, such as fusion reactor project ITER.


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