The recent crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo and explosion on launch three days earlier of an Antares rocket further underline the dangers of inserting nuclear material in the always perilous space-flight equation--as the U.S. and Russia still plan.
"SpaceShipTwo has experienced an in-flight anomaly," Virgin Galactic tweeted after the spacecraft, on which $500 million has been spent for development, exploded on October 31 after being released by its mother ship. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/31/us-space-crash-virgin-factbox-idUSKBN0IK2GO20141031 One pilot was killed, another seriously injured. Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic founder, hoped to begin flying passengers on SpaceShipTwo this spring. Some 800 people, including actor Leonard DiCaprio and physicist Steven Hawking, have signed up for $250,000-a-person tickets to take a suborbital ride. SpaceShipTwo debris was spread over the Mojave Desert in California. click here
Three days before, on Wallops Island, Virginia, an Antares rocket operated by Orbital Sciences Corp. blew up seconds after launch. It was carrying 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments to the International Space Station. The cost of the rocket alone was put at $200 million. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2810128/Ready-liftoff-Nighttime-rocket-launch-International-Space-Station-visible-East-Coast.html NASA, in a statement, said that the rocket "suffered a catastrophic anomaly." http://www.nasa.gov/content/frequently-asked-questions-on-antares-launch-anomaly/ The word anomaly, defined as something that deviates from what is standard, normal or expected, has for years been a space program euphemism for a disastrous accident.
"These two recent space 'anomalies' remind us that technology frequently goes wrong," said Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. www.space4peace.org "When you consider adding nuclear power into the mix it becomes an explosive combination. We've long been sounding the alarm that nuclear power in space is not something the public nor the planet can afford to take a chance on."
But "adding nuclear power into the mix" is exactly what the U.S. and Russia are planning. Both countries have been using nuclear power on space missions for decades--and accidents involving their nuclear-powered space devices have happened with substantial amounts of radioactive particles released on Earth.
Now, a major expansion in space nuclear power activity is planned with the development by both nations of nuclear-powered rockets for trips to Mars.
One big U.S. site for this is NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "NASA Researchers Studying Advanced Nuclear Rocket Technologies," announced NASA last year. At the center, it said, "The Nuclear Cryogenic Propulsion team is tackling a three-year project to demonstrate the viability of nuclear propulsion technologies." In them,
a "nuclear rocket uses a nuclear reactor to heat hydrogen to very high temperatures, which expands through a nozzle to generate thrust. Nuclear rocket engines generate higher thrust and are more than twice as efficient as conventional chemical engines." http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/ntrees.html
"A first-generation nuclear cryogenic propulsion system could propel human explorers to Mars more efficiently than conventional spacecraft, reducing crew's exposure to harmful space radiation and other effects of long-term space missions," NASA went on. "It could also transport heavy cargo and science payloads."
And out at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the DUFF project--for Demonstrating Using Flattop Fissions--is moving ahead to develop a "robust fission reactor prototype that could be used as a power system for space travel," according to Technews World. The laboratory's Advanced Nuclear Technology Division is running the joint Department of Energy-NASA project. "Nuclear Power Could Blast Humans Into Deep Space," was the headline of Technewsworld's 2012 article about it. It quoted Dr. Michael Gruntman, professor of aerospace engineering and systems architecture at the University of Southern California, saying,"If we want solar system exploration, we must utilize nuclear technology." The article declared: "Without the risk, there will be no reward." http://www.technewsworld.com/story/76699.html
And in Texas, near NASA's Johnson Space Center, the Ad Astra Rocket Company of former U.S. astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz is busy working on what it calls the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket or VASMIR. Chang-Diaz began Ad Astra after retiring from NASA in 2005. He's its president and CEO. The VASMIR system could utilize solar power, related Space News last year, but "using a VASMIR engine to make a superfast Mars run would require incorporating a nuclear reactor that cranks out megawatts of power, Chang-Diaz said, adding that developing this type of powerful reactor should be high on the nation's to-do list." http://www.space.com/23613-advanced-space-propulsion-vasimr-engine.html Chang-Diaz told Voice of America that by using a nuclear reactor for power "we could do a mission to Mars that would take about 39 days, one-way." NASA Director Charles Bolden, also a former astronaut as well as a Marine Corps major general, has been a booster of Ad Asra's project.
Ad Astra and the Nuclear Cryogenic Propulsion project have said their designs would include nuclear systems only starting up when "out of the atmosphere" to prevent, in the event of an accident, "spreading radiation back to Earth."
However, this isn't a fail-safe plan. The Soviet Union followed this practice on the satellites powered by nuclear reactors that it launched between the 1960s and 1980s. This included the Cosmos 954. Its on-board reactor was only allowed to go critical after it was in orbit, but it subsequently came crashing back to Earth in 1978, breaking up and spreading radioactive debris on the Northwest Territories of Canada.
As to Russia now, "A ground-breaking Russian nuclear space-travel propulsion system will be ready by 2017 and will power a ship capable of long-haul interplanetary missions by 2025, giving Russia a head start in the outer-space race," the Russian news agency RT reported in 2012. http://rt.com/news/space-nuclear-engine-propulsion-120/ "Nuclear power has generally been considered a valid alternative to fossil fuels to power space craft, as it is the only energy source capable of producing the enormous thrust needed for interplanetary travel.... The revolutionary propulsion system falls in line with recently announced plans for Russia to conquer space... Entitled Space Development Strategies up to 2030, Russia aims to send probes to Mars, Jupiter, and Venus, as well as establish a series of bases on the moon."
This year OSnet Daily, in an article headlined "Russia advances development of nuclear powered Spacecraft," reported that in 2013 work on the Russian nuclear rocket moved "to the design stage." http://osnetdaily.com/2014/01/russia-advances-development-of-nuclear-powered-spacecraft/
As for space probes, many U.S. and Russian probes have until recently gotten their on-board electrical power from systems fueled with plutonium--hotly radioactive from the start.