Work Conducted at RSC Energia to Develop Nuclear Electric Rocket Engines
The use of nuclear reactors as power plants for electrical rocket engines (RSC Energia concept till 1988) necessitated
the development of a high-power Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) based on lithium-niobium technology.
The key features of this technology are as follows:
- The electric power source is a fast neutron thermal emission reactor/converter with thermal emission converters
of heat into electrical power built into its active zone;
- Modular design of the active zone and the cooling system using lithium as a coolant (the structural material is a niobium alloy);
- Electrical power distribution system built around specially designed high-temperature assemblies.
Thermal emission reactors and nuclear power plants built on their basis have passed flight tests (on Cosmos 1818
and Cosmos 1867 spacecraft). The properties of a high-power reactor/converter, including nuclear safety issues, were
studied on a physical test stand.
More than 200 thermal emission converters have passed tests in active zones of experimental reactors.
RSC Energia built (in 1967) a high-vacuum test facility for tests on NPP assemblies and systems made of refractory
metals. High-temperature lithium/niobium NPP module prototypes logged more than 100 000 hours of running time.
All the major NPP module components and assemblies, as well as their manufacturing processes have passed developmental
tests using NPP module prototypes. High-temperature electrical engineering components, including plasma DC voltage converters,
have been built and tested.
There has been work done on electric rocket engines, including development of lithium electric arc jet engines using high-power
electromagnetic plasma acceleration. In one assembly, an up to 300 kW electric rocket engine was tested.
Based on the experience gained in the experiments, RSC Energia has developed designs for space NPPs and electrical power
In spite of the considerable amount of work done in the NPP development and testing, in 1988, driven by the desire
to make the interplanetary vehicle environmentally safe, a decision was made to switch from nuclear power to solar power.
Space nuclear power plant units and system testing