Nuclear Propulsion for Solar System Domination

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Artist impression of the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) spacecraft arriving at Venus orbit.
Adrian Mann, Bisbos.com

Icarus Interstellar is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to accomplishing interstellar flight by 2100. The Center for Space Nuclear Research (CSNR) is a focus for research and development of advanced space nuclear systems, including power and propulsion systems, and radioisotope power generators. Icarus Interstellar have recently partnered with CSNR to bring you a series of articles aimed at exploring the potential uses of nuclear power for space propulsion and power generation for space missions. Topics like this, and more, will be discussed at this year's "Starship Congress" hosted by Icarus Interstellar in Dallas this August.

With the recent excitement surrounding Dennis Tito's announcement of Inspiration Mars -- an ambitious plan to take advantage of the fortuitous close approach and send a couple on a flyby of Mars to leave Earth in 2018 -- it's easy become myopic and consider the planets of our solar system as the next logical step in our collective exploration of, and expansion into, space.

With that said, it's incredibly important to recognize that the planets are, from a technological and engineering standpoint, extremely challenging objects to both visit and ultimately return from due to their comparatively large gravitational fields.

ANALYSIS: Nuclear Thermal Rocket: A Misunderstood Beast

On a planetary surface, we are stuck at the bottom of a deep gravitational potential energy 'hole', and escape from this hole requires high thrusts, precision timing, and lots of energy. The immutable laws of physics ensure that planetary exploration will always be extremely energy intensive.

An often overlooked, yet equally tantalizing destination, is the asteroid belt. For our economy to continue to grow, we need an abundant reservoir of resources, and this can be provided by the asteroids.

While their total volume is, in fact, less than the Earth's total volume, they are more accessible than the depths of our own (or other) planets. Asteroids are known to be rich in many materials including carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen. The asteroids hold astonishing potential for mining -- something currently being investigated commercially by the company Planetary Resources, backed by founder of the X-Prize Peter Diamandis.

ANALYSIS: Project Bifrost: Rockets of the Future?

However, it is also possible that the asteroids may become home to humans of the future. Of the 100 billion or so asteroids in our solar system, about 1 percent are large enough to be modified into something that could be turned into a human settlement, indicating an abundance of living area waiting to be developed.

While asteroids are relatively ubiquitous, the highest density lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, so this real estate is, potentially, a prime target for the asteroid settlers of the future. At this distance from the sun, the solar intensity is only about 1/10th that we receive on Earth; however, it is still sufficient for plant growth, implying that the asteroid settlement could still engage in crop and agricultural activities for food and materials.

With so many bodies in our solar system, opportunities for a wide variety of experimental cultures and an vast array of intrinsic personal and cultural freedoms become manifest.

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