Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) is one of the best options for manned missions throughout the solar system with over double the ISP of chemical rockets. A new NASA NIAC study will look at improved nuclear propulsion with a Wave Rotor combined with Nuclear Electric. This could enable four times the ISP of nuclear thermal and up to ten times the ISP of chemical rockets while also having high thrust levesl.
The state-of-the-art NTP cycle is based on solid core Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) class technology that is envisioned to provide a specific impulse (Isp) of 900 seconds doubling chemical rocket performance (450 seconds). Even with this impressive increase, the NTP NERVA designs still have issues providing adequate initial to final mass fractions for high DeltaV missions.
Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP) can provide extremely high Isp (over 10,000 seconds) but with only low thrust and limits on mass to power ratios. The need for an electric power source also adds the issue of heat rejection in space where thermal energy conversion is at best 30-40% under ideal conditions.
A novel Wave Rotor (WR) topping cycle is proposed that promises to deliver similar thrust as NERVA class NTP propulsion, but with Isp in the 1400-2000 second range. Coupled with an NEP cycle, the duty cycle Isp can further be increased (1800-4000 seconds) with minimal addition of dry mass. This bimodal design enables the fast transit for manned missions (45 days to Mars) and revolutionizes the deep space exploration of our solar system.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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