Great Nuclear Notions for the Long Haul

The Nuclear Thermal Reactor Element Environment laboratory at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

The nation’s leading association of space professionals, the American Astronautical Society, has presented one of its top annual prizes to a University of Alabama in Huntsville graduate research assistant, for his notions on nuclear propulsion.

Dennis Nikitaev

Beyond a return to the moon, a human visit to Mars is the venture that gets astronauts’ adrenalin pumping, and nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) is the leading candidate for the long-haul fuel.

Dennis Nikitaev, a UAH doctoral student, presented his ideas on some refinements to just how NTP could meet the requirements of low weight, high power and economy, for a journey to Mars.

Nikitaev’s paper was one of two in the country chosen by the AAS for a 2020 Molly Macauley Award for Science and Engineering.

Nikitaev pondered some improvements in the NTP fuel mix.

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An NTP engine uses low enriched uranium to heat a lightweight propellant such as liquefied hydrogen to 2,650 degrees Kelvin. Nikitaev’s paper indicated that performance could be boosted by seeding the hydrogen with small concentrations of argon.

The procedure, Nikitaev found, promises to fit more propellant mass into the same volume to get higher changes in velocity from the vehicle.

“However, these benefits came at the cost of efficiency by bringing down the specific impulse,” Nikitaev says. “The paper also outlined my planned experiment to extract the properties of the mixture and work with experimental rather than analytical and extrapolated data.”

So Nikitaev now has his sights set on an experiment.

It’s an experiment he hopes to see carried out by the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Nuclear Thermal Reactor Element Environment laboratory, where a mix of argon seeded hydrogen can be heated and pressurized to NTP conditions, to discover the actual properties that result.

“By doing this, not only will it help the seeded hydrogen research, but it will also increase our understanding of hydrogen-noble gas mixtures at supercritical conditions and the underlying transport properties associated with these mixtures,” Nikitaev says.

Winners of the Molly Macauley Award are given a $2,500 stipend to attend ASS conferences. The award is named for an economist, who died in 2016, who was vice president for research at Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank.

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