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Leo Enright investigates the prospects for nuclear propulsion in space.
Wednesday 09 March 2005 9.00-9.30pm

Fifty years ago, US nuclear scientists were working on a top secret project to develop a three thousand-ton rocket that would take people to Mars propelled by atomic bombs.

Now there's Project Prometheus, a more modest but nevertheless controversial plan to use nuclear power for unmanned missions beyond the earth and eventually to Jupiter and beyond.

Prometheus 1 around Jupiter
Artist's impression of the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO).
Courtesy NASA/JPL
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A huge nuclear-powered space ship eases itself out of Earth orbit and heads off on a great voyage of discovery.

This is not a dream of science fiction, but the goal of a $3 billion project that aims to launch its first nuclear behemoth before the end of the decade.

If the spectacularly successful Galileo probe to Jupiter was the Pilgrim Fathers' "Mayflower", then, by comparison, Project Prometheus is the QE2.

One of the key missions to benefit from the technology would be JIMO - Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (pictured above), scheduled for launch around 2016.

Before that may come a technology demonstration mission to a nearer target such as the moon.

Nukes in Space

But is this a technological dream-come-true or will it turn into a nuclear nightmare? Critics fear that Project Prometheus is an attempt by the United States to introduce powerful weapons into outer space through the back door.

Proponents point out that it doesn't use atom bombs, but a small, safe nuclear reactor that generates power for an electric propulsion system. Such a space vehicle would escape the Earth's gravity on a conventional rocket before activating its nuclear reactor.

But after that it would have sustained power to drive it to Jupiter and flit from moon to moon with enough power left over for instruments such as radar that could penetrate their icy surfaces and look for liquid oceans beneath.

Leo travels to Albuquerque in New Mexico where nuclear rocket scientists from around the world are meeting to discuss their work. And to a test chamber in Hampshire, England, where the non-nuclear part of the technology - an ion engine - is under development.

But there are complex moral and technological issues raised by this new generation of nuclear-powered space probes. For some, who are passionate environmentalists, the trade-off between nuclear risk and scientific return poses a profound dilemma.

Mass Protests?

Scientists like Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the "Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space" worry that not only could an accident at launch spread radioactive material across the surface of the earth but also that the reactors and nuclear systems that NASA claim will be used for exploration, could actually be used to power space weapon systems such as lasers and electromagnetic cannons.

He led the protest over the Cassini missions - the plutonium fuelled probe that has now arrived at Saturn and says the same mass protest could happen again.

However the proponents insist that we are on a threshold of a new capability in space, and the only safe and sustainable way to journey away from the sun and still have useful power is to use nuclear technology.
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