Russians to ride a nuclear-powered spacecraft to Mars
President Dmitry Medvedev says Russia will spend $600 million on a nuclear-powered spacecraft to take men to Mars, and beyond. Is it safe?
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Russian scientists complain that their post-Soviet space program is chronically underfunded. But when a project is endorsed by top leadership (the Sochi 2014 Olympics, for example), recent history indicates the funding is likely to be found.Skip to next paragraph
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A breakthrough in atomic-powered propulsion would loft Russia back into the front ranks of space-faring nations and make it the indispensable partner for future international space efforts. And with the US forging ahead with its own next-generation replacement for the space shuttle, the Ares 1-X (launched Wednesday), Russia could use a public relations victory in this realm.
But critics say the idea of nuclear-powered space travel, while alluring, is probably impracticable.
“Nobody has ever done it in the past, and I don’t think anyone ever will,” says Igor Lisov, an expert with Novosti Kosmonavtiki, a leading Russian aerospace journal.
“Both the US and the USSR tried very hard to master this technology, but neither ever got to the point of building something that could be used,” he says.
Earlier this year, a US Iridium communications satellite collided in space with another Russian atomic-powered military satellite, Kosmos 2251, creating what scientists described as a huge and potentially hazardous cloud of debris in near-Earth orbit.
“The main danger with any nuclear activity in space comes with the transporting of these materials into orbit, and the sometimes unscripted return of them into the atmosphere,” says Vladimir Chuprov, an energy expert with Greenpeace-Russia.
“There is a history here that warns us to be very, very cautious about this idea,” he says.
Is space exploration too expensive for one nation? Click here to read about efforts to create an international Starfleet Command.