- Russia is building a nuclear-powered spaceship that can transport heavy cargo in space.
- The spaceship is scheduled to launch on a mission to Jupiter in 2030.
- After all, Russia hopes to be able to build a nuclear-powered space station using similar technology.
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Russia plans to send a nuclear powered spaceship to the moon, then to Venus, and then to Jupiter.
Roscosmos, Russia's federal space agency, announced on Saturday that its “space tug” – the term for a spacecraft that transports astronauts or equipment from one orbit to another – is expected to launch on an interplanetary mission in 2030.
The spacecraft's energy module, named “Zeus”, is said to generate enough electricity to carry heavy cargo through space. It is essentially a mobile nuclear power plant.
Several countries have similar technologies in mind to shorten space travel. Currently, spacecraft rely on solar energy or gravity to accelerate. However, that means it could take astronauts more than three years to complete a round trip visit to Mars. NASA estimates that a nuclear-powered spacecraft could shave a year before that time frame.
The USA hope to be able to put a nuclear power plant – a 10-kilowatt reactor with an integrated lunar lander – on the moon as early as 2027. So far, however, NASA has only sent a nuclear reactor on a satellite into space in 1965.Other spaceships, such as the Mars Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, also run on nuclear power, but do not use a reactor.
Russia has now put more than 30 reactors into space. According to Russian state news agency Sputnik, the “Zeus” module would fuel those efforts by using a 500-kilowatt nuclear reactor to move from one planet to the next.
The mission plan calls for the spaceship to first approach the moon and then head towards Venus, where it can use the planet's gravity to change direction towards its final destination, Jupiter. That would help save propellants.
According to Alexander Bloshenko, Roscosmos' Executive Director for Long Term Programs and Science, the entire mission would take 50 months (just over four years). During a presentation in Moscow on Saturday, Bloshenko said Roscosmos and the Russian Academy of Sciences are still working to calculate the ballistics, or trajectory of the flight, as well as the amount of weight it can carry.
The mission could ultimately be a forerunner of a new frontier in Russian space travel: Sputnik reported that Russia is designing a space station that uses the same nuclear-powered technology.
Nuclear energy has advantages over solar energy in space
A concept of a NASA spacecraft that would use nuclear thermal propulsion.
Most spaceships get their energy from a few sources: the sun, batteries or unstable atoms known as radioisotopes.
For example, NASA's Juno spacecraft in Jupiter uses solar panels to generate electricity. Solar energy can also be used to charge batteries in a spacecraft, but the energy source becomes less efficient when a spacecraft is further away from the sun. In other cases, lithium batteries can help power shorter missions on your own. The Huygens probe, for example, landed briefly on Saturn's moon Titan in 2005 with batteries.
NASA's two Voyager spacecraft use radioisotopes (sometimes referred to as “nuclear batteries”) to survive the harsh environments of the outer solar system and interstellar space. However, this is not the same as bringing a nuclear reactor on board.
Nuclear reactors offer several advantages: They can survive cold, dark regions of the solar system without the need for sunlight. They are also reliable over long periods of time – the “Zeus” nuclear reactor is designed for a service life of 10 to 12 years. They can also move spacecraft to other planets in less time.
But nuclear power also has its challenges. Only certain types of fuels, such as highly enriched uranium, can withstand the extremely high temperatures of a reactor – and they may not be safe to use. In December, the US banned the use of highly enriched uranium to launch objects into space when a mission using other nuclear fuels or non-nuclear energy sources is possible.
Russia is preparing for a nuclear-powered space station
ISS crew member Sergey Kud-Sverchkov lands in a remote area in Kazakhstan on April 17, 2021.
NASA / Bill Ingalls / Reuters
Russian engineers began developing the “Zeus” module in 2010 with the aim of getting it into orbit within two decades. You are on the right track to reach this mark.
Engineers began manufacturing and testing a prototype in 2018, Sputnik reported. Roscosmos also signed a 4.2 billion ruble ($ 57.5 million) deal last year with which Arsenal, a St. Petersburg-based design company, was held responsible for a preliminary design.
The technology could aid Russia's efforts to develop a new space station by 2025. The BBC reported last month that Russia plans to cut ties with the International Space Station, which it shares with the US, Japan, Europe and Canada this year.
Russia launched the ISS in 1998 in partnership with the United States. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov told the state television broadcaster Russia 1 last month that the state of the ISS “leaves much to be desired”. In fact, the station recently detected air leaks and a failure of its oxygen supply system.
NASA has cleared the ISS for flight until at least 2028, but the agency is likely to desorb the station over the next 10 to 15 years.