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president Bush is all set to endorse the use of nuclear power for the exploration of Mars, arguing that nuclear propulsion represents an essential technology for manned and unmanned exploration of space. us-based National Aeronautical and Space Administration (nasa) has recently tabled its nuclear propulsion initiative called Project Prometheus. It is believed that us government will give the project us $1billion over five years.
"We are talking about doing something on a very aggressive schedule to not only develop the capabilities for nuclear propulsion and power generation, but to have a mission using the technology within this decade itself," said Sean O'Keefe, chief of nasa. However, public relations officials of nasa have played down this statement.
Using far less fuel, nuclear propulsion is theoretically capable of proffering rockets much faster speeds than conventional technologies. The technology was studied during the 1960s in initiatives such as the Project Orion, but it was subsequently neglected, partly for political (1963 nuclear test-ban treaty) and financial reasons. Nuclear propulsion would mean that Martian probe could be possible through manned landing programmes, which could last for three or four months.
In the wake of the development, anti-nuclear groups say that nasa is putting up a charade by developing ecofriendly rocket fuels. Two years of collaboration between us-based Stanford University and nasa has led to the making of a non-toxic, easy-to-handle rocket fuel made from a substance similar to what is used in common candles. The by-products of combustion of the fuel are carbon dioxide and water. Conventional rocket fuel produces aluminum oxide and acidic gasses, such as hydrogen chloride.
"The fuel would make the dream of a hybrid rocket come true," says Greg Zilliac of nasa. A hybrid rocket uses a liquefied oxidiser that is gasified before being injected into the combustion chamber containing solid fuel. Upon ignition, a flame develops over the fuel surface causing the solid to evaporate, thereby sustaining the combustion. Because current hybrid fuels cannot sustain a high combustion rate, they have found only limited application and are not commercially viable for space applications. Tests conducted at the Stanford University and nasa laboratories have shown that the new fuel has a combustion rate three times greater than that of other hybrid fuels.
Experts say that nasa should promote the fuel instead of using nuclear energy.