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Uprated Nexus + Gas Core Nuclear Second Stage



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Convair concept for a reusable Uprated Nexus SSTO with a gaseous core second stage. Circa 1964. The Uprated Nexus is the larger version of Convair’s reusable booster, see my diagram post here Nexus SSTO Booster Comparison.

In 1962 the NASA Future Projects Office called for a post-Saturn launch vehicle for the 1975-2000 time frame. NASA's forward looking plans for the 1970’s and 1980’s called for lunar bases with permanent crews of 100 or more and large scale manned exploration of the solar system. This vision helped drive the size of Nexus; manned interplanetary spacecraft means large liquid hydrogen tanks, nuclear engines were also foreseen … not just solid-core nuclear thermal engines like NERVA but gas-core nuclear rocket engines and nuclear-pulse (Orion) engines. These are massive systems and require massive boosters.

In this variant the first stage remains an all-chemical reusable booster stage powered by a hydrogen/oxygen plug-nozzle engine.

Second stage is a nuclear stage powered by two six million pound gas core open-cycle nuclear thermal rockets. Payload to low Earth orbit: 3.2 million pounds.

Scott Lowther of Aerospace Projects Review expended the time, doing the research to dig up the information on Nexus, and the data in this post is credited to his hard work. What I've included here is just the barest essential detail, for the full story on Nexus, along with diagrams and facts covering area's of the program not available elsewhere, I highly recommend  Scott Lowther's complete article on Nexus, available here V3N1 of Aerospace Projects Review.

The Uprated Nexus + gas core nukes is a launch vehicle that definitely falls under the heading of living dangerously. The limit on NTR-Solid exhaust velocities is the melting point of the reactor, in order to achieve higher exhaust velocities some enterprising engineer(‘s) designed a reactor to operate in a molten state.

From Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets site:

“Gaseous uranium is injected into the reaction chamber until there is enough to start a furious chain reaction. Hydrogen is then injected from the chamber walls into the center of this nuclear inferno where it flash heats and shoots out the exhaust nozzle.

The trouble is the uranium shoots out the exhaust as well.”

As Winchell Chung points out “An exhaust plume containing radioactive uranium is harmless in space but catastrophic in Earth's atmosphere.”

Presumably the booster would stage at sufficient altitude to prevent radioactive exhaust plumes from the twin second stage gas core engines from hitting the atmosphere – but the risk is certainly present and worth consideration.  

In theory: the reaction is maintained in a vortex tailored to minimize loss of uranium out the nozzle. Fuel is uranium hexaflouride (U235F6), propellant is hydrogen.

In some designs the reaction chamber is spun like a centrifuge. This encourages the heavier uranium to stay in the chamber instead of leaking into the exhaust. Failure mode, in which bearings on the chambers seize, would be, as Winchell notes, *spectacular.*

Model is based on diagram from Scott Lowther’s Unwanted blog, found here: Nexus + Gas Core Nuclear Second Stage.

Dimensions appearing in red on the diagram – those for the gas core second stage – are approximated based on the scale on Scott Lowther’s diagram (at the link immediately above).

I’ve extrapolated some details – such as the reaction control system – which do not appear in the diagram, based on the logical need for their existence – an argument could be made that gimbaling the gas core engines is sufficient. I based the RCS design on the Apollo service module’s reaction control jets which were designed around the same time period. The thrust structure on the bottom of the stage is my own extrapolation (since it is not visible in the diagram, but must logically be present) and may differ from the actual item designed by Convair.  

On Winchell Chung’sAtomic Rockets site this spacecraft is found here: Uprated GCNR Nexus which features an earlier 3D model I built of the gas core engines.
Gas Core (Open Cycle) NTR Data

I've used the first generation gas core engine data available on Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets, since gas core engines were highly theoretical at the time of this design.

Convair Nexus Reference Links, courtesy of Scott Lowether’s Unwanted Blog:

Convair Nexus SSTO

Convair Nexus 1million Lb Payload/2 million Lb Payload Comparison

Nexus + Gas Core Nuclear Second Stage

Nexus Gas Core Nuclear SSTO

Related Images

Convair Nexus SSTO

Nexus SSTO Booster Comparison
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tingmarco's avatar
Been thinking about it with Magitek. if Boosting a fuel's energy content to 2x doubled the Isp.. Well. I am not exactly how sure the 2 would go in hand.. Maybe the Fuel sort of carries its own oxidizer and combusts as well? Boosting compounds are energized and release their energy to accelerate propellant even further? (The payload that a 6000-sec Nexus would lift is nothing short of outright ridiculous)

A second note. Would Boosted Kerosene fuels increase thrust in a Turbojet in part due to higher energy per kg? (a 2x increase is 1.5x increase in thrust.etc) Could the same be true for Piston engines like the Merlin?