Russia Building Rocket With Nuclear Engine For Interplanetary Travel

Russia is building a rocket with a nuclear engine that can be used in space missions to Mars and beyond, a leading scientist has said. Vladimir Koshlakov, head of Moscow's Keldysh Research Center, told Rossiyskaya Gazeta that the rocket will be able to land on Mars then re-launch into space after just 48 hours.

Koshlakov, who is a specialist in heat transfer and mathematical modelling, said scientists have been working on the rocket since 2009. He said it uses a "unique" propulsion system that is the stuff of science fiction: "A mission to Mars is possible in the very near future, but that's not an aim in itself. Our engines can be the foundation for a whole range of space missions that currently seem like science fiction," he said, adding that there was no timeline on when the rockets would be ready.

"Reusability is the priority. We must develop engines that do not need to be fine-tuned or repaired more than once every ten flights. Also, 48 hours after the rocket returns from space, it must be ready to go again. This is what the market demands."

The nuclear rockets would get astronauts to and from destinations far faster than other spacecrafts in development, such as those powered by solar panels. Ongoing research in mice has shown long duration space travel has many adverse health effects, and scientists are concerned this may translate to humans. Koshlakov says the systems they are developing are "particularly promising for interorbital, interplanetary flights."

Their engine, he claims, could get to the moon in just a few days and Mars in seven or eight months. Explaining how it works, he said: "From a power source, this is a nuclear reactor that heats the working fluid. The heated working fluid enters the turbine, on the same shaft with which there is an electric generator. Rotating the turbine, we generate an electric current, which is necessary for the operation of the spacecraft in general and electric plasma engines in particular. Traction electroplasma engine is the driving force of the spacecraft as a transport system."

Koshlakov said their main competition was the U.S., adding that Elon Musk of SpaceX is currently using old technology that is not the future of space travel. "[Musk] created his own rocket based on old, long-developed and used engines. He acted as a merchant: he took a ready-made, tested solution and successfully applied it."

As Russia sets its sights on interplanetary travel, NASA continues to look to Mars as its next big mission. The space agency recently announced its next lander will arrive on the surface of the Red Planet at the end of the month. It hopes to send the first humans to Mars onboard its Orion spacecraft in the 2030s.