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Russia planning nuclear-powered manned spaceship

Reactor cruiser aimed at Moon, Mars missions

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Feeble chemical fuels and solar cells can never achieve serious travel beyond LEO

Solar cells can deliver useful amounts of power for ships in space or planetary landings, but almost all of the Moon suffers from two-week-long nights - and the possible iceberg rocket-fuel mines of the polar craters, a likely spot for Moon bases, are in permanent darkness. On Mars, further from the Sun than the Earth-Moon system, solar cells deliver less power and they are the main limiting factor on current rovers and landers there. Thus NASA's plans for the next Mars rover to be nuclear powered.

For all these reasons there are many in the space community who argue that travel beyond low Earth orbit will never become a serious activity without more powerful technologies than chemical fuels and solar cells. Nuclear power has already been used in space, mostly aboard radar spy satellites needing more juice than solar could supply (famously, some Russian ones with actual reactors aboard - not just radioisotope batteries - have cracked up on launch or ploughed uncontrolled back into the atmosphere).

Some have argued for actual nuclear rockets, where thermal energy is used to squirt reaction mass rather than generate 'leccy. Others contend that a better and more efficient method is to use electric power to run a plasma rocket. This might allow for heavier radiation shielding for astronauts or alternatively provide power for the possible magnetic shields of the future - and nuclear generators could power bases or probes on planets far from the sun, too.

Judging by the RIA Novosti report, Russia is leaning more toward the nuclear-electric options. Perminov's planned megawatt nuke spaceship will cost 17 billion rubles ($580m) by his estimates, and he says the design will be finalised in 2012.

That's not much money in the context of a NASA budget, but it's big bucks for Russia even in the gas-revenue era. There has to be a lot of doubt whether Roscosmos will get the funds. ®

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