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Nuclear Power in Outer Space

In the inner solar system, where we Earthlings reside, sunlight is a natural choice for powering spacecraft. Once a probe gets past Jupiter, though, the number of photons per square meter drops below the level at which a solar panel array is a good choice for power. Also, an array of solar panels that would be necessary to operate a base or a very complex rover on the Moon or Mars would be bulky, and run the risk of damage from micrometeorite impacts. Furthermore, the lunar night lasts for fourteen days. A lunar base that depended on solar panels would need to charge banks of batteries to cover that period, which would be very heavy, adding greatly to the cost of the base.


Additionally, our ability to propel spacecraft by liquid fuelled rockets is limited to about eight miles per second. If we seriously intend to go to and from all the worlds of the solar system on a regular basis, a quicker method of travel would come in handy. The solution to these problems and limitations lies in the use of radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) or nuclear reactors for these missions, an issue of grave importance, as America's supply of plutonium, the fuel for RTGs, is in dire straits. This webpage covers these technologies for the purpose of space exploration. You may also find useful resources in our webpages on The Future of Space Exploration, Space Colonization and Management of Safety and Technical Risks. The Headquarters Library also has many of the environmental impact statements that are created when NASA builds a spacecraft that uses RTGs. If you are a NASA HQ employee, please consider subscribing to our news alert on nuclear power in outer space to get the latest news.

All items are available at the Headquarters Library, except as noted. NASA Headquarters employees and contractors: Call x0168 or email Library@hq.nasa.gov for information on borrowing or in-library use of any of these items. Members of the public: Contact your local library for the availability of these items. NASA Headquarters employees can request additional materials or research on this topic. The Library welcomes your comments or suggestions about this webpage.

Contents: Policies Books E-books Articles and Reports Internet Resources

NASA Policies

The following policies and procedural requirements can be accessed by anyone through the NASA Online Directives Information System:
NASA Headquarters Office Work Instruction 8710-GD014: Coordinate Nuclear Launch Safety Approval (NLSA) Process
NASA Procedural Requirements 8705.5A: Technical Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA) Procedures for Safety and Mission Success for NASA Programs and Projects
NASA Procedural Requirements 8715.3C: NASA General Safety Program Requirements


Angelo, Joseph A. Nuclear Technology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004. ISBN: 1573563366
TK9145 .A55 2004 BOOKSTACKS
Bowles, Mark D., and Robert S. Arrighi. Science in Flux: NASA's Nuclear Program at Plum Brook Station, 1955-2005. Washington, DC: NASA History Division, 2006.
TK9230 .B69 2006 BOOKSTACKS
Available through NTRS as document no. 20060027114.
Czysz, Paul A., and Claudio Bruno. Future Spacecraft Propulsion Systems: Enabling Technologies for Space Exploration. Berlin; New York: Springer; Chichester, UK: Published in association with Praxis Pub., 2006. ISBN: 3540231617
TL782 .C99 2006 BOOKSTACKS
Dewar, James A. To the End of the Solar System: The Story of the Nuclear Rocket. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2007. ISBN: 9781894959681
TL783.5 .D48 2007 BOOKSTACKS
Dyson, George. Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co., 2002. ISBN: 0805059857
TL783.5 .D95 2002 BOOKSTACKS
Friedensen, Victoria Pidgeon. Protest Space: A Study of Technology Choice, Perception of Risk, and Space Exploration. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1999.
TL1102 .N8 F75 1999 BOOKSTACKS
Mulgrew, Kate. Of Ashes and Atoms: The Story of the NASA Plum Brook Reactor Facility. Cleveland, OH: NASA Glenn Research Center, 2004.
National Research Council. Committee on Priorities for Space Science Enabled by Nuclear Power and Propulsion. Priorities in Space Science Enabled by Nuclear Power and Propulsion. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2006. ISBN: 9780309100113
TL1102 .N8 P75 2006 BOOKSTACKS
Available to the general public through the National Academies Press
__________. Radioisotope Power Systems Committee. Radioisotope Power Systems: An Imperative for Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Space Exploration. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2009. ISBN: 0309138574
TL795.3 .R34 2009 BOOKSTACKS
Available to the general public through the National Academies Press
Project Daedalus Study Group. Project Daedalus: The Final Report on the BIS Starship Study. London, UK: Space Educational Aids, 1978.
Stanculescu, A. The Role of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Propulsion in the Peaceful Exploration of Space. Vienna, Austria: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2005. ISBN: 9201074042
TL1102 .N8 I34 2005 BOOKSTACKS
United States. General Accounting Office. Space Exploration: Power Sources for Deep Space Probes: Report to the Honorable Barbara Boxer, U.S. Senate. Washington, DC: The Office, 1998.
TL1102 .N8 U54 1998 BOOKSTACKS


The e-book listed below is available to the general public through InTech.
Singh, Nirmal. Radioisotopes - Applications in Physical Sciences. 2011. ISBN: 9789533075105
The e-book listed below is available to the general public through the National Academies Press.
Steering Committee for NASA Technology Roadmaps. NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities: Restoring NASA's Technological Edge and Paving the Way for a New Era in Space. 2012. ISBN: 9780309253628

Articles and Reports

Abelson, Robert D. (ed.). Enabling Exploration with Small Radioisotope Power Systems. JPL-Pub-04-10. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, Sept. 2004.
(20050182942: (July 2009) NTRS)
Cook, Beverly A. "Making space nuclear power a reality", in: AIAA 1st Space Exploration Conference: Continuing the Voyage of Discovery, Orlando, FL, Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2005.
(20060044167: (Dec. 2001) NTRS)
Dawson, Sandra M. and Maria Sklar. "Space Nuclear Power Public and Stakeholder Risk Communication", in: American Nuclear Society, San Diego, CA, June 05, 2005.
(20060050329: (Nov. 2006) NTRS)
Deutsch, Claude. Fusion Reactions and Matter-Antimatter Annihilation for Space Propulsion. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Orsay, France, July 13, 2005.
(ADA446638: (24 May 2006) DTIC)
Downey, James R., Anthony M. Forestier, and David E. Miller. Flying Reactors: The Political Feasibility of Nuclear Power in Space. Air University School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell AFB, AL, April 2004.
(ADA425874: (April 2004) DTIC)
Dyson, Rodger, W.. and Geoffrey A. Bruder. "Progress Towards the Development of a Long-Lived Venus Lander Duplex System", in: 8th International Energy Conversion Engineering Conference (IECEC), Nashville, TN, July 25-28, 2010.
(20110012899: (June 2011) NTRS)
Mason, Lee S. "Realistic Specific Power Expectations for Advanced Radioisotope Power Systems", in: 4th International Energy Conversion Engineering Conference (IECEC-2006), San Diego, CA, June 26-29, 2006.
(20080003866: (Jan. 2008) NTRS)
Noble, Robert J., et al. New Opportunities for Outer Solar System Science using Radioisotope Electric Propulsion. SLAC-PUB-13772. SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Menlo Park, CA, May 26, 2010.
(979959: (July 2010) DOE Information Bridge)
Salama, Ahmed, and Lisa Ling. "A methodology of MSL breakup analysis for Earth accidental reentry and its application to breakup analysis for Mars off-nominal entry", in: AAS/AIAA Astrodynamics Specialist Conference, Lake Tahoe, CA, Aug. 7-11, 2005.
(20060044412: (Dec. 2006) NTRS)
Schmidt, George R., et al. "Radioisotope Electric Propulsion (REP): A Near-Term Approach to Nuclear Propulsion", Acta Astronautica, vol. LXVI, no. 3-4, p. 501-507.
Available online through NTRS as document no. 20110016114.
Williams, Craig H., Leonard A. Dudzinski, Stanley K. Borowski, and Albert J. Juhasz. Realizing "2001: A Space Odyssey": Piloted Spherical Torus Nuclear Fusion Propulsion. NASA/TM-2005-213559. Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, OH, March 2005.
(20050160960: (March 2005) NTRS)

Internet Resources

Patterson, Michael J. Ion Propulsion. April 21, 2009. [April 3, 2012].
Pike, John. Space Nuclear Power/Nuclear Thermal Propulsion. 2009 [April 3, 2012].
United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources In Outer Space. 2007 [April 3, 2012].
Zona, Kathleen. Warp Drive, When? Jan. 26, 2009 [April 3, 2012].

Last Updated: April 2012