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Nuclear SSTO Launch

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Gas Core Closed Cycle Nuclear Light Bulb SSTO concept vehicle design for my Orion's Arm future history setting.

Featured on Realistic Spaceship Illustrations Blog, Link: here

Propulsion design

Detail on the Gas Core Closed Cycle Nuclear Light Bulb engine can be found on Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets site, here: Gas Core Closed Cycle Nuclear Light Bulb.

The Nuclear Light Bulb engine is similar to an open-cycle gas core fission rocket, but the uranium plasma is confined in a fused quartz chamber. The good news is that unlike the open-cycle GCNR it does not spray glowing radioactive death, there is no uranium escaping in the exhaust. The bad news is that the maximum exhaust velocity is halved, as is the Delta-V. The solution would be to somehow constrain the uranium by something non-material, such as a magnetohydrodynamic force field. Winchell Chung points out, currently such fields can only withstand pressures on the order of the breeze from a flapping mosquito, not the 500 atmospheres of pressure found in a nuclear light bulb engine. But since researchers are working along the same lines in their attempts to make a fusion reactor, this may change. Winchell did find a brief reference to something called an "MHD choke" in reference to slowing the escape of uranium into the exhaust stream of an open-cycle gas core rocket. So this would be the technology challenge in making such engines a reality.

A closed-cycle GCNR with a thrust to weight ratio higher than one would allow using the awesome might of the atom to boost truely massive amounts of payload into Terra orbit, without creating a radioactive wasteland with every launch. See the GCNR Liberty Ship for an example. The Liberty Ship can boost in one launch more payload than any given Space Shuttle does in the shuttles entire 10 year operating life. Then the Liberty Ship can land and do it again.

— Technical detail and commentary courtesy Winchell Chung @ Atomic Rockets

The capabilities of Anthony Tate's Liberty Ship are a close match to the kind of heavy lift and de-orbit capability necessary to the needs of the Martian terraforming program. Many years ago, around '07-'08, I created a model of the Liberty Ship, and the closed-cycle GCNR, which you can see on Winchell Chung's site, and when it came time to build this model it occurred to me that the Liberty Ship matched the capability I had in mind.

Physical Characteristics

Physical vehicle characteristics inspired by the North American manned fly-back Booster design — omitting the mid-body wing as it would serve no purpose in the pre-terraformed Martian atmosphere.

Descent is primarily propulsive, using the closed-cycle engines to largely cancel the vehicles orbital velocity with the remainder shed by aerobraking. The vehicle is in powered flight all the way to touchdown, using its main engines to extend or curtail its descent velocity. This is a different descent mode than any of the early Shuttle prototypes, however in terms of sheer scale the North American Flyback Booster is the closest analogy to the vehicle I've designed.    

A good write up on the North American manned Fly-Back booster is to be found on Scott Lowther’s Unwanted Blog, here: North American Fly Back Booster.

The resulting launch vehicle stands 460 feet tall. It is launched vertically, propelled by eight Gas Core closed-cycle Nuclear Light Bulb engines (with a ninth engine held in reserve). Descent to surface takes advantage of aerobraking and powered return flight to a controlled rolling touch-down at the launch facility of origin.

The elongated pods seen on the dorsal surface (matched by a singular pod on each flank, and three more pods similarly positioned on the vehicles belly) are the aerodynamic housings for slightly outward angled reverse-thrust outlets for the vehicles eight Gas Core closed-cycle Nuclear Light Bulb main engines.

For an example of a Nuclear SSTO mission see my image: Orbital Mirror Assembly.

This heavy payload capacity vehicle is purposed to deorbiting and soft landing packages of mined ices returned from Callisto, and later from Titan, in support of the Martian Terraforming Program.

Other missions include assembling the large scale polar mirror arrays, assembling and mounting nuclear-pulse magazine fuel stacks (launched via the Martian Nexus heavy booster) on orbit for departing Callisto and Titan mission vehicles.

Terraforming Resource Recovery Mission crews fly to orbit aboard the Nuclear SSTO – as the Orion nuclear pulse mission vehicles are launched with only a minimum to orbit fuel load and flight crew aboard, additionally the Nuclear SSTO manages the orbital infrastructure missions transporting construction crews to Phobos, carrying out the work of assembling the components delivered there for construction the Martian main orbital port complex.

For more information on my future history see my journal entry Orion’s Arm Future History, A Synopsis

A Timeline Graph is to be found here: Timeline.

On the Orion’s Arm Timeline this image falls towards the end of the Martian Frontier era, at the very beginning of the terraforming program, see my journal entry Martian Frontier for more detail.

Related Images:

Heavy Lift Nuclear SSTO.

Nuclear SSTO Reverse Thrust.

Gas Core Shutdown 5 Second Glide to Rollout.
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JESzasz's avatar
"Winchell Chung points out, currently such fields can only withstand pressures on the order of the breeze from a flapping mosquito".
That actually is pretty funny, if not pathetic, but then, I guess containment technology is very young.
 We'll, probably, hopefully figure out how to make it work, because being able to use nuclear power for lift offs I imagine would be a huge breakthrough for space technology. I mean, I'd imagine being able to use a nuclear power source without worrying about spewing harmful radiation would be a huge thing.
 Correct me if I'm wrong, but with that power, you couldn't just get things into orbit, you could also create shuttles between here and the moon, without all those disposable booster stages.
William-Black's avatar

A magnetically confined nuclear lightbulb engine with a thrust-to-weight ratio of less than 1 would be tremendously useful (presuming a context where the developmental expense could be absorbed by the economic payoff, but that is a different discussion entirely).There are issues though.


Creating a magnetic confinement that can withstand 500 atmospheres of pressure, as Winchell Chung points out, is a nontrivial engineering problem – fusion reactor research “may” find a solution (or it may not) time will tell, we are simply not there yet.


There is another problem with nuclear lightbulb, and this came out in a discussion on open cycle gas core on my G+ (much of which is posted in the image-caption text here Open Cycle Gas Core Nuclear Thermal Rocket) and that problem has to do with the nuclear lightbulb’s uranium handling system, which is going to be a nightmare. You'll have to gather hot uranium vapor, and somehow condense it back into metal without it


[a] plating itself all over the interior of the condensation chamber

[b] accumulating a critical mass anywhere in the condensation system


Needless to say, this also is a nontrivial engineering problem.


There is a Convair NEXUS vehicle in the P/S-E class with four open cycle gas core nuclear engines integrated into the chemical engine NEXUS first stage, capable of delivering 1 million pound payload to the lunar surface, or 3 million pounds to LEO. This was the Super NEXUS. 440 feet tall with a second stage 170 feet in diameter, the entire volume of which is a sectionalized hydrogen fuel tank.


The Super Nexus would launch on its LH2 LOX plug nozzle engine. At burnout (well above the Kármán line (altitude 100 km (62 mi) above sea level)) the four gas core engines would ignite to circularize a temporary Earth orbit, after vehicle checkout the gas core engines would ignite again, boosting for the moon where the vehicle would  park itself in a 20-mile altitude lunar orbit. The vehicle would then de orbit to an altitude of 2000 feet, where it would hover. The payload would separate and land itself; the Super NEXUS would boost itself back to either an Earth orbit or de orbit to a controlled ocean splashdown for recovery.


NyrathWiz's avatar
So is this done with Blender 3D instead of Bryce?
William-Black's avatar
No this is the Bryce version. I am currently engaged in the build of a much evolved Blender revision of this model. What I'm doing here is an update to the text in order to clarify my chain of design thought. In part this is a matter of preserving the legacy of my Bryce based work, and highlighting works that achieved a certain degree of sophistication in terms of technique. Your words the other day impressed on me the need to do this kind of update and commentary.

When I post the revised Blender model I will move this version to an archive gallery folder, annotate it with a revision note, and the new revision will have direct links to the original Bryce model.

Posting the update on works that will be revised also gives opportunity to newer followers, who may not be aware of older works due to the large number of works in my gallery, the chance to comment, and gives those who follow my work some idea of what to expect in the near future, post-transition to Blender.   
NyrathWiz's avatar
Makes perfect sense to me!
AnataraKentara's avatar
This makes me grin from ear to ear. If only!
sohighlydubious's avatar
Beautiful, inspiring stuff!
Centurion030's avatar
Winchell has been FANTASTIC to work with for my Oz Novel! Great guy!
William-Black's avatar
Winchell's the best, all around great guy, and endless source of of thought provoking analysis and information.
Centurion030's avatar
He sure is. I joked with him that once moon colonies are established, the world owes him and his group a world of thanks! He cleared up a LOT of confusion I had and as I was designing the Recon Craft used in the story, I could see his questions about specific impulse and such come to life. Of course, his calculations are the heart of the HALEY's feasibility. 
NyrathWiz's avatar
Happy to be of assistance!
Taena-Doman's avatar
Brilliant! Love the angle.
thormemeson's avatar
Urus-28's avatar
It's just great, the design of the ship is simple and very realistic and the global rendering just perfect :clap:
KPEKEP's avatar
:wow: perfect
William-Black's avatar
Justass's avatar
Niice ^.^
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