The Russian newspaper TASS has an intriguing, but agonizingly scant on details article about plans to use the International Space Station to a test elements of a “megawatt class” nuclear propulsion system.
“Specifically, Roscosmos expects to receive “proposals on the rational structure of key elements, systems and items of a perspective nuclear propulsion unit intended for tests in outer space, including with the use of the ISS’ Russian segment….The works on creating a transport energy module based on a megawatt-class nuclear propulsion unit were approved by the Russian presidential commission for modernization and technological development of the Russian economy in 2009. By the end of 2018, the energy propulsion unit should be prepared for flight and design tests.”
The story goes on to say that Moscow-based Keldysh Research Center is the only institution expected to submit a bid for the program which is budgeted at approximately $60 million USD for 2016-2018.
Previous media reports describe the center as working on a 1 megawatt space nuclear reactor designed to power an electrical propulsion system.
“Russian researchers propose a method whereby the reactor does not heat the jet stream released from the engine, but instead generates electricity. The hot gas from the reactor spins the turbine and the turbine spins the generator and the compressor, which provides the closed circuit circulation of the propellant. The generator produces electricity for the plasma engine with a specific thrust 20 times higher than that in a chemical engine.”
(Note: The use of the term “specific thrust” is likely confusion on the part of the writer, and should instead be specific impulse.)
Whether used for propulsion or for power, the advantages of nuclear power generation in space, a technology on which the Untied States has essentially given up, are considerable. For comparison, the solar panels which power ISS are capable of producing between 90 and 120 kilowatts, easily outstripping the largest satellites, but even at maximum output, that is amounts to only 10% of a megawatt.