NASA Copernicus MTV nuclear-rocket deep-space exploration ship

There’s a petition on the White House website calling for the United States to rapidly develop a nuclear thermal rocket engine.

Technically, nuclear thermal rockets are a promising technology, but unless NASA develops a deep-space ship to put it on (like the Copernicus MTV, shown here, or the Nautilus X), a nuclear rocket engine would be wasted.

There is little chance of a commercial outfit working through all the red tape needed to launch a nuclear rocket engine into orbit. (It’s questionable whether the government could do that itself.)

We’ve discussed this problem with engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and all of us came to the same conclusion: the best hope for nuclear rocket engines is finding uranium or thorium on the Moon. That would solve the political/environmental problem by allowing nuclear reactors to be launched from Earth unfueled. It would also jump start the development of lunar industry.

Mining nuclear fuel on the Moon has an advantage over other lunar mining schemes, such as platinum group metal (PGM) mining. Those proposals work only if mining on the Moon is cheaper than mining on Earth. That is possible but not yet proven. The bar for mining nuclear material on the Moon is much lower, if environmental politics does not allow us to launch it from Earth.

Written by Astro1 on January 12th, 2013 , Space Exploration (General), Space Policy and Management

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    Roberto Maurizzi commented

    NASA has a thorium distribution map from Lunar Prospector available that shows expected: thorium on the Moon crust mainly comes from asteroid impacts.

    I’m no mining expert so I don’t know if >12ppm is a good concentration or not, or how likely is it to find much greater concentration in those craters.

    That said, I don’t like the fact that you’re hoping to create a market out of political restrictions. Other countries won’t have them and if anyone should decide to “jump” in the game then your ‘market’ would disappear overnight.
    A better plan is to spread the rumor that Chinese are going to do it ;^) and then get an approval to launch the Th or U in hardened sealed canisters that can survive catastrophic reentry.

    January 12, 2013 at 11:48 pm
    Chris Landau commented

    Now if you pay me tons and tons of money, I can come up with even crazier ideas than mining the uranium on the moon. Why don’t we fly to the sun, scoop up some hydogen-helium-plasma and build a nuclear fusion rocket. Dream big, after all fission is so, so passe. I know that the latest nomadic robot, Curiosity wandering around on Mars is driven by nuclear fission. I do not remember any great fuss about launching that fissionable material through our atmosphere in the last year. We could get some from the reactors in Japan, that is lying around going to waste and those from the forthcoming shut down of reactors in Germany. We could take 5000 nuclear warheads from America and 5000 from Russia and join them all together above our Earth and form a really big rocket to send to say Proxima Centauri, managed by the person whose idea was to mine Uranium on the moon. They can mine whatever else they need, on their one way trip, on one of the planets they might find there in a few thousand years time. I did not know that there was a spare 100 billion lying around to set up a mining base on the moon. Somebody should tell NASA they have so much money to burn.
    Chris Landau January 13, 2013

    January 13, 2013 at 2:45 am
      Roberto Maurizzi commented

      Ahahah Chris 😀

      I do agree with your viewpoint, but I think the winning idea is for NASA to (help to) develop new technologies, then transfer them to private industries when there’s a decent business opportunity for them to be used (see that nice inflatable module in that Copernicus, that didn’t exactly fly in space because NASA was interested: Bigelow flew it).

      But we’re beating the bush around: NASA’s problem is politics and mismanagement (due to the aforementioned politics). I do think that government or private companies can be the same, given a decent enough management culture at their command, but this can’t happen until the management can keep their job only by kissing some politician… agenda.

      IMNSHO, someone else than NASA will develop whatever we need to start doing serious ‘business’ in space, either the Chinese or SpaceX or some Arabic Gulf country (in the latter 2 cases maybe in collaboration with NASA, ESA, JAXA and Co.)

      January 13, 2013 at 2:55 am
      admin commented

      Do you have any idea of the difference between the power needed to drive Curiosity and the power needed to drive a manned spaceship between planets?

      Curiosity is driven by a radioisotope thermal generator (RTG), not a nuclear reactor which is going to be a wee bit bigger and get a bit more publicity.

      January 13, 2013 at 2:59 am
        Roberto Maurizzi commented

        To be totally precise, Curiosity uses a much simpler type of generator that instead of controlling fission, only uses the natural decay heat to power a direct thermal generator. Much simpler, much less radioactive material, much more robust (that type of casing CAN withstand catastrophic reentry).
        But that’s why it’s simple to ‘solve’ the problem: you can launch uranium pellets in the same type of containers, in human-rated rockets, and accumulate enough to do everything you need.
        Nobody will say you’re launching a boatload of U with high risk of incident.

        January 13, 2013 at 3:21 am
          admin commented

          How many Senators/journalists/anti-nuclear activists have you talked to about that?

          It’s impossible to get a license for a new power reactor in the United States. What makes you think it will be easier to get a license to launch one into space?

          January 13, 2013 at 3:26 am
            Roberto Maurizzi commented

            It is impossible mainly because ‘big nuclear’ made it so to avoid the development of small and medium nuclear reactors: they’re sure that they’ll be able to do something about it, but meanwhile a very dangerous type of competition is dead.

            Technically, you don’t need any licence since you’re not operating the reactor in the United States. You only need the permission to move nuclear material, something that’s already happening every day (unless you shut down all your hospitals’ radiology units 😉 ) the only additional burden is that’s going up instead of horizontally… but again, it’s been done many times, the last of which was in October 2011 for Curiosity.

            So, as much as I’d like to see the industrialization of the Moon, you won’t have my money to follow this path, since it’s too easy to lose everything if someone decide to simply send up some U, maybe split in a few flights for security reasons (and that’s a nice business plan for SpaceX, Boeing and friend, so it’s not an unlikely development).

            January 13, 2013 at 3:34 am
            admin commented

            “It is impossible mainly because ‘big nuclear’ made it so to avoid the development of small and medium nuclear reactors….”

            Ah, conspiracy theory — there you go. 🙂

            But at the same time, you assume the evil conspirators wouldn’t try to stop you?

            “Technically, you don’t need any licence since you’re not operating the reactor in the United States. ”

            If you believe that, you haven’t read the FAA commercial launch regulations. (NASA is not subject to FAA regulation, but they still have to answer to Congress and their own people.)

            January 13, 2013 at 3:44 am
            admin commented

            A quick check with the FAA will likely confirm that your local hospital has not received a Commercial Launch License. They probably don’t transport nuclear materials by rocket, or in the quantities that would be required for a nuclear rocket. Nor do they receive the sort of public attention that a manned space launch does.

            Other than that, your analogy is perfect. 🙂

            January 13, 2013 at 3:55 am
            Roberto Maurizzi commented

            Well the conspiracy theory comes from Rod Adams (@Atomicrod) and it’s quite believable: according to him, the new rules for safety and evacuation zones after Fukushima do not depend on reactor size and core size and are ‘casually’ just right for big reactors: if you want to buy a small/medium one, the price tag just skyrocketed (pun intended).

            Regarding FAA regulations and commercial launches, well, Curiosity was launched on a ULA operated vehicle. If you don’t give me the same rules, it’ll be antitrust hell for ULA and/or NASA, since ULA is a commercial company but due to the special contracts with NASA they can avoid FAA regulations: I’d say it’s only fair for the others to be treated the same, what do you think? 😀

            Obviously it could happen that FAA forbids NASA from launching RTGs… after all the current Congress is doing such a good job at screwing up the US that even this could happen… ;^)

            January 13, 2013 at 4:13 am
            admin commented

            Government regulators are immune to antitrust stunts. And a little research will show that nuclear construction was dead for decades before Fukushima, when this conspiracy allegedly began.

            January 13, 2013 at 4:59 am
            Roberto Maurizzi commented

            I know that no reactor was build or a construction project started since (IIRC) the ’80s. But the theory is that after Bush stated that he wanted to build 1000 new nuclear power plants, a lot of people started running around to get that money.
            Also the military are VERY interested in SMR (small medium reactors) and they already have something (developed by the private sector under contract with them, IIRC). The story goes that ‘big nuke’ feared to lose a very big slice of the pie, so they lobbied Washington for those new rules, that allows the military their toys (they’ll operate outside US) but without ruining their 1000 reactors market 😉
            Again, it’s quite believable but if you follow @Atomicrod you’ll see that sometimes he can be a little too… zealous about advocating nuclear power… 😀

            Regarding contractor immunity, they still have the politicians to worry about: I don’t think they’ll stay put when SpaceX or, worse, Boeing will start complaining they’re kept out from the market because of unfair competitive practices enforced by Big Govt regulations. They’ll either change the rules or require NASA to flight their hardware like they do for ULA.

            January 13, 2013 at 5:31 am
            admin commented

            Bush also said he was going to support private-sector education and send NASA astronauts to the Moon starting in 2016. The fact that Bush (or any politician) says something doesn’t make it true.

            Investors are not going to put billions of dollars into a nuclear-power project without doing due diligence. They want regulatory certainty, not X-Files theories that say the anti-nuke movement is secretly working for Big Nuclear (whoever that is).

            January 13, 2013 at 1:23 pm
            Roberto Maurizzi commented

            > Investors are not going to put billions of dollars
            > into a nuclear-power project without doing due
            > diligence.

            But that’s exactly my point. Why should any investor put money in this project when anyone can go to the Russians or the Chinese and send up all the enriched Uranium he would need?

            Developing the infrastructure to do that on the Moon can be worthwhile to avoid launch costs and hassles, but the other way around is a very hard sell to investors: you need hundreds of billions and many years to be able to do something that someone else can do in 6 months and with maybe 100 millions.

            This is similar to some of the worst patent shit the USE came out with: just because US are bogged down by stupid laws and regulations created out of fear or lobbying, the rest of the world isn’t.

            January 15, 2013 at 11:19 pm
    alex wilson commented

    Well, it’s nice to not have a grasp of technology, isn’t it? Finding and mining uranium on the Moon is actually the simplest problem in your proposal. The *real* problem is refining and purifying the uranium to a level where it can be used to power a reactor. Earth-based power reactors use fuel that’s made up of uranium that been ‘enriched’ to the point where it’s about 20% U-235 (the more fissionable isotope of uranium), and a space-based nuclear-thermal rocket would likely need at least that high a level of enrichment, if not more. Do you know how hard it is to get this done, and the hardware you’d need to ship to the Moon to do it? Why do I think not?

    January 13, 2013 at 7:10 pm
      admin commented

      It isn’t necessary to ship everything to the Moon. A lot of it can be built there. Do you think everything in the New World was shipped over from the Europe? This is becoming easier all the time thanks to techniques like 3D printing.

      Having a grasp of technology can be even nicer, sometimes.

      January 13, 2013 at 7:26 pm
      Roberto Maurizzi commented

      There are a lot of ‘alternative’ nuclear reactor technologies being developed on Earth that can avoid enrichment and the associated nuclear weapon proliferation risk… but they still need years of development (See TerraPower for example and their Traveling Wave Reactor).
      But right now the only reasonable thing to do would be to send up a robotic prospector while waiting for these technologies to mature, maybe helping them to do that.

      January 15, 2013 at 11:29 pm
    Geoff McHarg commented

    Of course a thermal nuclear rocket has already been built and ground tested by both the US and Russia. The US NERVA program probably was the most successful. Wikipedia has a fairly good history, and there is a good webpage on the LANL site. There are also several good books on the program.

    Nuclear rockets are great for “deep space” work, especially interplanetary. The ISP is something like 850 seconds, and the thrust to weight is approximately 3-4, with a total thrust of 250,000 lbs. NERVA was designed as the Mars rocket, and demonstrated all the technology needed to build a prototype engine. NASA never developed it of course; the space program was pretty much shut down after Apollo.

    Getting permission to launch a nuclear payload takes presidential authority, and the last three RTG’s have proven extremely hard sells politically. It seems hard to imagine getting a President with the courage to give such authorization now.

    The nuclear rocket idea keeps getting resurrected because it has a lot of technical merit. You can get to Mars with chemical, but it is really hard. We really don’t know exactly how hard it would be with nuclear, we just were not far enough along in the testing program.

    The money needed to restart the program would be very daunting. When NASA was looking at JIMO (Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter), it looked into restarting a space based nuclear reactor (actually a bit easier than the engine) program. The reactor was to run the ion thrusters for JIMO. At that time (about 2003-2004) the initial design contract was ~$400M, so you can imagine what the dollar cost for an operation engine might be.

    Oh well, one day we will go!



    January 13, 2013 at 7:14 pm
    Randy Moe commented

    Just do something. Even if it wrong. We’ve got to protect our phony baloney jobs. Blazing Saddles (1974)

    January 15, 2013 at 2:53 pm
    Aaron VanAlstine commented

    Thanks for the shout-out on my petition. We have almost 2,000 signatures so far!

    January 15, 2013 at 10:11 pm
    Roberto Maurizzi commented

    I wonder how bulky and massive a Thorium molten salt reactor would be.
    From this quick summaries:

    The technology looks pretty promising for space reactors (and yes, reactor grade Thorium is so much easier to produce than Uranium). From the data given in the posts, detected concentrations on the Moon aren’t very interesting, but some of those craters could use a closer look to check if they have higher concentrations of Th 🙂

    January 16, 2013 at 11:14 pm
    Ravi Sharma commented

    I tried to search all 255 petitions on and did not find the named petition.

    February 10, 2013 at 2:45 am
      admin commented

      The petition has expired because it did not receive the minimum number of signatures.

      February 10, 2013 at 6:09 pm