Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) systems have been studied in both the USA and the former Soviet Union since the 1950s for use in space science and exploration missions. NTP uses nuclear fission to heat hydrogen to very high temperatures in a short amount of time so that the hydrogen can provide thrust as it accelerates through an engine nozzle. Benefits of NTP systems compared to conventional chemical and solar electric powered propulsion systems include higher fuel efficiency, greater mission range, shorter transit times, and a greater ability to abort missions and return to Earth in the event of system failure. As a result of these benefits, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is evaluating NTP for use in crewed missions to Mars, and plans for a possible mid-2020s flight demonstration of a NTP engine are under development. The extremely harsh conditions that NTP systems must operate in present a number of significant engine design and operational challenges. The objective of this chapter will be to describe the history of NTP material development, describe current NTP material fabrication and design practices, and discuss possible future advances in space propulsion material technologies.
Part of the book: Nuclear Materials