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Nuclear-powered rockets
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Nuclear-powered rockets could save NASA billions of dollars in launch costs for its planned return to the Moon, a top nuclear scientist says. He argues that the higher efficiency of nuclear propulsion would reduce the number of launches needed to build a lunar base.
NASA wants to start sending astronauts to the Moon by 2020, with the aim of building a permanent base there. Construction of a lunar base is expected to cost billions of dollars, much of which is due to the high cost of launching hardware from Earth to the Moon.
But Steven Howe, director of the Centre for Space Nuclear Research (CSNR) at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, US, says the cost could be reduced using more efficient nuclear-powered rockets. Howe presented the results of a recent CSNR study on the topic on Tuesday at the Space Nuclear Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, US.
Carried out by university students funded by CSNR, the study examined the potential savings from incorporating nuclear power into NASA's Ares V, the launch vehicle being developed to haul heavy cargo, including parts for a lunar base, to the Moon.
Under this scenario, the Ares V would use ordinary chemical rockets to launch into Earth orbit, where it would dock with the Orion crew vehicle that would have launched on a separate Ares I rocket. In NASA's current plans, a second stage on the Ares V would then ignite to send the crew and cargo out of Earth orbit and towards the Moon. But in Howe's scenario, this Earth-departure stage would be nuclear-powered instead.

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