Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Inheritable Events

The NERVA/Rover project was eventually cancelled in 1972 with the general wind-down of NASA in the post-Apollo era. Without a manned mission to Mars, the need for a nuclear thermal rocket was unclear. It was also becoming clear that there would be intense public outcry against any attempt to use a nuclear engine.
Although the Kiwi/Phoebus/NERVA designs were the only to be tested in any substantial program, a number of other solid-core engines were also studied to some degree. The Small Nuclear Rocket Engine, or SNRE, was designed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for upper stage use, both on unmanned launchers as well as the Space Shuttle. It featured a split-nozzle that could be rotated to the side, allowing it to take up less room in the Shuttle cargo bay. The design provided 73 kN of thrust and operated at a specific impulse of 875 lbf·s/lb (8.58 kN·s/kg), and it was planned to increase this to 975 with fairly basic upgrades. This allowed it to achieve a mass fraction of about 0.74, comparing with 0.86 for the SSME, one of the best conventional engines.
A related design that saw some work, but never made it to the prototype stage, was Dumbo. Dumbo was similar to Kiwi/NERVA in concept, but used more advanced construction techniques to lower the weight of the reactor. The Dumbo reactor consisted of several large tubes (more like barrels) which were in turn constructed of stacked plates of corrugated material. The corrugations were lined up so that the resulting stack had channels running from the inside to the outside. Some of these channels were filled with uranium fuel, others with a moderator, and some were left open as a gas channel. Hydrogen was pumped into the middle of the tube, and would be heated by the fuel as it travelled through the channels as it worked its way to the outside. The resulting system was lighter than a conventional design for any particular amount of fuel. The project developed some initial reactor designs and appeared to be feasible.

There is an inherent possibility of atmospheric or orbital rocket failure which could result in a dispersal of radioactive material, and resulting fallout. Catastrophic failure, meaning the release of radioactive material into the environment, would be the result of a containment breach. A containment breach could be the result of an impact with orbital debris, material failure due to uncontrolled fission, material imperfections or fatigue and human design flaws. A release of radioactive material while in flight could disperse radioactive debris over the Earth in wide and unpredictable area. The zone of contamination and its concentration would be dependent on prevailing weather conditions and orbital parameters at the time of re-entry.

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