Idaho National Laboratory and the Universities Space Research Association created the Center for Space Nuclear Research (CSNR) in 2005 to foster collaboration with university scientists. CSNR scientists and engineers research and develop advanced space nuclear systems, including power systems, nuclear thermal propulsion, and radioisotopic generators. The Center is located at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) building in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Nuclear Thermal Propulsion
The United States first explored the use of nuclear power in space in the 1950s. Between 1955 and 1972, the U.S. built and tested more than 20 nuclear-propelled rocket engines in the Rover/NERVA program.
Researchers are revisiting the concept, which is viewed as one of the most promising technologies for powering a manned mission to Mars.
CSNR researchers are developing a tungsten-based fuel for use in a nuclear thermal rocket that shares many of the benefits of the graphite fuels developed in the NERVA program -- a lot of energy in a small mass. But unlike graphite fuels, CSNR's tungsten fuel emits a clean, nonradioactive exhaust, a major environmental concern associated with the NERVA project.
The nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) is a "game changing" technology that could be developed, tested, and deployed in the next few decades.
Developing an NTR requires fuel to be fabricated and characterized, a full-scale, surrogate-loaded tungsten fuel element to be demonstrated, and the microstructure and material behavior to be quantified.