The NASA new nuclear “bubble-through” rocket engine

BLENDER is the project for a nuclear thermal-propelled rocket engine that could significantly improve future spacecraft.

Scientists at the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH), with the collaboration of several other research institutes in the United States, are carrying out a program on behalf of NASA concerning the development of a device called BLENDER (Bubbling Liquid Experiment Navigating Driven Extreme Rotation). This is the project for a nuclear thermal-propelled rocket engine that could propel future spacecraft.

The nuclear thermal propulsion engine works by heating the gaseous propellant (hydrogen) to very high temperatures, but without combustion. At a certain temperature level, hydrogen starts bubbling and for this reason the device is also referred to as a “bubble engine”. Through a particular cylinder, the hydrogen then comes into contact with a rotating liquid uranium core, and this causes a rapid expansion of the gas. The latter, coming out of a nozzle, generates the thrust.

A significant improvement

Compared to liquid fuel engines which usually burn oxygen and hydrogen, this new design produces “significantly higher performance”. The difference in performance is due to the type of combustion, according to Dale Thomas, one of the scientists leading the project. Traditional engines still provide a significant boost, but with less momentum. In traditional liquid fuel engines, the hydrogen and oxygen molecules are heavier and cannot escape from the nozzle very quickly.

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A major boost for orbit travel

Indeed, while the thrust is significant for leaving Earth’s gravity, an efficient pulse allows for more reasonable use of fuel, which is critical when one begins to travel in space over long distances. The project of the UAH researchers, in particular, is based on the fact that hotter and lighter hydrogen atoms can allow a possible spacecraft to be much more efficient and, therefore, to go much further or to reach destinations. closer more effectively and quickly.

“If we make the propellant hotter, it has more energy and will come out of the nozzle faster, which provides more momentum”

Dale Thomas, one of the scientists leading the project

According to the scientist, a spacecraft equipped with an engine with a BLENDER device could allow trips to Mars and other destinations in the Solar System in much shorter times. Furthermore, with a spacecraft powered by a nuclear thermal propulsion engine, the Kuiper belt could also be reached on a direct trajectory, a peripheral area of ​​the Solar System that extends up to 50 times the distance of the Sun from the Earth.

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From theory to practice.

There are still some technical limits to overcome in order to carry out the innovative project. As Thomas explained, in fact, the physical principles behind the operation of this device have been understood but there are engineering challenges that have not yet made it possible to transform theory into practice. However, with today’s technological advancements, the hopes of mounting the prototype of a nuclear bubble engine on a real spacecraft become more and more concrete.

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