Russia to use nuclear powered space tugs to reach Jupiter

ROSCOSMOS plans to use two different nuclear-powered space tugs also known as the Transport and Energy Modules (TEM) to get to Jupiter.

Russia to use nuclear powered space tugs to reach Jupiter
Russia plans to launch nuclear powered spacecraft to Jupiter. Photo Credit: AFP

Ever since Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei discovered the gas giant Jupiter which is the biggest planet in the solar system through his telescope back in 1610, NASA has launched 10 missions so far to study the planet. Now Russia plans to join in by launching its own nuclear-powered space spacecraft to Jupiter.

Speaking at the New Knowledge forum in Moscow, Roscosmos Executive Director for Long-Term Programs and Science Alexander Bloshenko said that they are planning to use two different nuclear-powered space tugs also known as the Transport and Energy Modules (TEM) to get to Jupiter. Space tugs are spacecraft which allow transfer of cargo or astronauts from one orbit to another.

Bloshenko announced that the first mission using nuclear-powered space tug would be launched by 2030 on top of Angara-A5V heavy rocket which is under development. The spacecraft will be powered by a 500 kilowatt nuclear reactor and will weigh
up to 22 tons.

The total mission duration of the flight is expected to be about 50 months since launch. The space tug will first visit the moon, lodge a satellite and then travel to Venus where it will drop another satellite and get a gravity assist to its journey towards Jupiter with another satellite onboard.

Russia has been developing TEMs since 2010 and plans to use it to power not only spacecrafts but even fully functional space stations in the future. NASA also uses nuclear power for its space missions using Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG) wherein the heat generated by the radioactive material such as Plutonium generates electricity by decaying over the years. NASA’s Perseverance rover, uses RTG nuclear batteries to power itself for an approximate 14 years mission life.

However, NASA has not used nuclear power reactors for controlled nuclear fission reactions to power its space missions which Roscosmos plans to do. Russia is planning to use its nuclear powered space tugs which it calls ‘Zeus’ for powering its future space stations as well as the country’s air defense system to track spacecrafts, aircrafts and even destroy it in orbit.

According to Russian state-owned news agency, RIA Novosti “depending on the power of the radar equipment (50 or 200 kilowatts), the (space) tug will be able, respectively, to cover an area with a radius of 2,200 kilometers or 4,300 kilometers (of Russian airspace).” RIA Novosti reports that the development of the preliminary design of the space tug will be completed by July 2024 and will cost 4.2 billion rubles ($57 million).

What are the risks of using N-reactors in space?

While nuclear reactors no doubt produce a lot more energy compared to electric or nuclear propelled engines, it comes with its own risk factors. In 1977, the former Soviet Union launched Kosmos 954, a reconnaissance (intelligence) satellite powered by 45 kilograms of highly enriched Uranium-235 nuclear reactor. However, the satellite malfunctioned and came crashing down over Canada on 24 January 1978.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the incident scattered radioactive debris over a 600 km footprint and spread radioactivity over 1,00,000 square km. Canada and the USA had to jointly clean up the radioactive debris in an ‘Operation Morning Light.’ Canada demanded Soviet Union to pay C$6 million but the Soviets ended up paying only C$3 million.

This led IAEA to set out clear guidelines for the country whose spacecraft’s nuclear power source is failing to immediately inform the affected states as well as IAEA.

“The IAEA’s Unified System for Information Exchange in Incidents and Emergencies (USIE) — a secure 24/7 monitored website — provides a platform for countries to exchange urgent notifications and follow-up information during a nuclear or radiological emergency,” IATA said in a press release.

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) the deciding global authority on space affairs which also keeps a track of all the space missions launched by every country will implement the ‘Joint Radiation Emergency Management Plan of the International Organizations’ (JPLAN) which provides the basic action plan when such nuclear disasters occur.