Saturday 19 March 2016

The Big List of Propulsion Failures III

And now, we complete the list.

Fission Gas

If Fission Solid is a nuclear steam boiler, Fission Gas is a nuclear furnace. To improve performance, higher temperatures are needed, but this was limited by the physical properties of the engine's components. So, thinking outside of the box, designers skipped the meltdown and created an engine where the uranium has turned to vapor. This allows the engine designs to have operating temperatures up to ten times that of solid core engine...

There are two major configurations: open cycle and closed cycle.

Open cycle has the uranium gas inside a reaction chamber directly above a nozzle. The uranium will escape, along with the propellant. A major design challenge is reducing this outcome to a minimum.
A spherical-chamber design for an open-cycle nuclear rocket.
In the above design, a ball of uranium plasma is suspended within a sphere of flowing propellant. It is configured so that the propellant 'pinches off' the uranium near the nozzle and stops it from escaping.

A design for an overly optimistic Mars mission.
In this design, a ring of uranium is kept in place by a vortex of propellant. 

Most fission gas designs have uranium operating at impressive temperatures of 55000K or more. No physical material can hold this vapor, and the heavy uranium atoms are hard to hold in using magnetic fields, so these designs have to rely on gas flow. The hot uranium is kept within a sheath of cold propellant. The flow of the propellant exerts a force on the uranium vapor within, and if moved in the right directions, it can greatly limit the leakage of uranium through the nozzle.

Understandably, trying to contain a dense gas at temperatures much hotter than the surface of our sun using something as tenuous as gas flow leads to multiple failure modes.

The first and most destructive is a change in the momentum of all gasses in the reaction chamber. This can be caused by acceleration of the spaceship or an external impact. Gas is compressible, so it will shift around inside the engine. The uranium inside the engine is very dense, so it will shift disproportionately more compared to the propellant containing it. If it moves too much, it will pierce the rest of the gasses and strike the inner wall of the reaction chamber.

As you would expect from a ball of ultra-hot radioactive gas, it will turn the walls to slag, splash through and coat the engine's internals in molten metal embedded with uranium particles. Packed closely enough, they'd remain critical and glow red hot for years.

Acceleration of the entire engine creates buoyancy. The hot uranium will gradually 'fall' within the much less dense propellant and coolant gasses. Eventually, it will just be ejected in its entirety through the nozzle. A big, dumb ball of radioactive death shining in the ultraviolet, just dumped into space. 

Spacecraft designed to handle milligee accelerations would have to account for this. If they hit the edge of an atmosphere and suffer drag, the buoyancy effects could make them lose all of their hot uranium. The same goes for military spacecraft that have to perform emergency maneuvers.    

The handling of gas flows creates an opening for a second failure mode. Like any machine with moving parts, it only takes a small failure to make the entire process grind to a halt. Except if its an open-cycle gas core engine, where 'grinding to a halt' is replaced by a 55000K ball of uranium plasma being set loose inside your spaceship.

If the propellant flow is reduced, the uranium will expand and increase the heat load on the engine walls. The forces that keep the uranium together are also reduced, increasing leakage through the nozzle. If it is cut off entirely, and the pressure on the uranium removed entirely, it'll explode. It probably won't produce enough pressure to blow up anything, but it will ruin the engine.

If there propellant flow against the uranium ball is too fast, the boundary between the gasses will drag along uranium particles and increase the losses. In the vortex designs, it might spin up the uranium too quickly and particles are ejected by centrifugal forces.

The velocity of the gasses involved guarantees turbulent flow. In some cases, this can create shockwaves that compress, isolate or pinch off uranium from the hot core and move to the walls or out of the nozzle.

All of these problems are exacerbated during the startup and the shutdown of the engine, since the balance between gas flows is intentionally unstable and changing. They also come with the failure modes you'd expect from thermal stress, pressure vessels, uranium and hydrogen embrittlement and so on, mostly analogous to those of the solid core nuclear rocket.

If all this sounds too much, you might want to try a nuclear lightbulb.
The closed-cycle nuclear gas-core rocket tries to completely contain the hot uranium within physical vessels, thereby preventing nuclear material from leaking out of the nozzle.

To do this, uranium is allowed to reach a temperature of about 25000K. There, it emits its energy as ultraviolet rays.

Fused quartz has a high temperature tolerance and is very transparent to ultraviolet light. Place the uranium at 25000K inside quartz vessels, and nearly all of its energy with shine through the quartz and into the propellant contained inside the reaction chamber.

This design has the major advantage that the hot uranium isn't going anywhere... but reintroduces the disadvantage of physical components directly in contact with hot stuff.  

Since the quartz is not 100% transparent, it will absorb a fraction of the uranium's energy and heat up. To counter this, it is built like a double-glazing window. The gap between the two panels run through with transparent coolant. 

So how does this precarious contraption fail?

Well, let's start small. The coolant flow through the quartz vessels is insufficiently cold. The fluid heats up and puts pressure on the quartz. The quartz is necessarily thin to increase transparency, so it might fissure and burst open. This releases hot uranium into the engine and ruins it.

What if the uranium itself gets too hot... or too cold? Its emissions can shift along the electromagnetic spectrum into something other than UV. X-rays, for example, would be fully absorbed by the quartz and melt it in seconds.

The uranium has the distributed equally within the quartz vessels. This is especially important during reactor startup. If the uranium gas being injected accumulates somewhere or is compressed during its injected, it might create hot spots or sharp increases in pressure. These would damage or crack open the quartz vessels.

The entire assembly is especially vulnerable to external influences. The quartz vessels are nothing more than special glass, so a sudden acceleration or impact can break them. The propellant flow exerts pressure, and creates vibrations, and if the engineers controlling the reactor do not compensate, the resonance can shatter the quartz vessels. 

The quartz is in direct contact with radioactive material, hot hydrogen and coolants. This means it has a short lifetime. If left unattended, and combination of thermal stress and embrittlement can mean an unexpected failure.

During shutdown, here is an additional danger of the uranium solidifying on the walls. This creates a coating that, during the next startup, would absorb nearly all of the UV rays. Its temperature increases and is conducted onto the quartz, which promptly melts. This is worrisome when the quartz vessels are expected to handle pressures of 500-2000atm.

So yes, the closed-cycle gas core designs do explode. 


Uranium Tetrabromide apparently dissolves pretty well in water.
The nuclear salt-water rocket design is either ridiculous or brilliant. 
Imagine a continuous nuclear detonation inside your spaceship. If things run smoothly, you'll dump enough water onto the nuclear explosion to smother it. If you mess up, the explosion travels upstream....

The number of failure modes for such an engine are innumerable. The water propellant has to ejected by jet turbines to maintain sufficient flow, and if they falter, your reaction chamber vaporizes. The nuclear saltwater has to be directed within this flow so that it has a sudden increase in concentration just outside of the nozzle, thereby achieving criticality. 

These requirements are complicated by the fact that trying to move a liquid within another liquid is rather difficult, and even more so when you're trying to push several swimming pools of it out of the nozzle every second.

Turbulent flow is deadly. Pockets of saltwater will detonate. If the water freezes at the edge of the reaction chamber, it will reduce your neutron moderation capability, as does the formation of bubbles.  

Changes in temperature are deadly. If the water cools too much, the uranium will precipitate out of it and detonate. If it is too hot, you won't be able to achieve the necessary concentration at the right place to ignite the engine.

The entire fuel tank is essentially a nuclear bomb. If the fuel lines clog up with salts, the increase in pressure and concentration can detonate the uranium. This creates a pressure wave through the fuel tank, with the edge producing criticality within the salts. The same goes with a leak, as the nuclear saltwater accumulating just about anywhere creates explosions.

The nozzle is a firehose of radioactive death. 

The neutrons emitted by the NSWR are also dangerous to itself, as in addition to the slow neutron embrittlement, it can activate uranium that hasn't reached the designated detonation zone and cause it to go critical prematurely. It also has a tendency to create heavy water that messes up the engineer's density and flow calculations.

Considering the power levels of NSWR design proposals, a single hiccup in the thrust can rip the spaceship apart. As water is generally incompressible, pressure variations are transmitted efficiently to the reaction chamber walls, and can resonate to deadly effect.

In the end, the NSWR can be seen as the first nuclear reactor in the 1940s. A dangerous technology that can go wrong in a million ways, but holds the promise of amazing performance. We've managed to handle nuclear reactors after a few decades of research and several mishaps along the way. Maybe, one day, we'll master the NSWR equally well. If not, it'll be relegated to the infamy of Lithium fluoride rockets and Superdeep drilling as being too dangerous to be practical. 

Nuclear Pulse

By comparison to the nuclear saltwater rocket, riding on a chain on nuclear detonations sounds relatively tame.

The oldest and best-developed nuclear pulse propulsion system is the Orion.
NASA Orion design.
The basic concept consists of a 'pusher plate' mounted on hydraulic suspension, catching the energy of a nuclear detonation directed towards it by a Casaba Howitzer-type mechanism.
Casaba Howitzer design.
The individual nuclear pulse units are essentially nuclear bombs. In vacuum, they would release most of their energy are hard radiation. The addition of an X-ray absorbent and propellant converts this energy into fast moving matter. 

Testing of the pusher-plate design has revealed that it is surprisingly durable. Unless the redundant suspension mechanisms are damage, it can handle pretty impressive forces and continue to work.

The nuclear pulse units, however, are a liability.

If they detonate too close to the plate, they can vaporize a big chunk off it. If they detonate and an angle, they can create asymmetric forces that stress the suspension mechanisms and flip the spaceship.

Having thousands of nuclear bombs in a spaceship is a nightmare for many people. Anywhere it crashes will become a diplomatic incident. Units that fail to detonate can crash and smash open, becoming dirty bombs, or be recovered by the wrong people. 

If the pulse units are manufactured defectively, such as with insufficient 'channel filler', they could bathe the spaceship in penetrating radiation. 

The pulse units also produce fallout. In an atmosphere, this would drift on air currents and affect places far from the launch site. In the upper atmosphere, it would produce EMP that would knock out electronics. In space, it is mostly harmless, but a spacecraft performing a retro-burn will have to fly through a cloud of radioactive debris. The outer surfaces would become contaminated and might prevent spacewalks.

Worldbuilding tips: Following a retro-burn insertion into orbit, an Orion spaceship might become a prime target for a hijack. The robots used to clean up the exterior surfaces can be jammed or shot off, leaving the crew trapped inside. Another spacecraft can then approach, cut a hole to the fuel tanks and start stealing pulse units to be re-purposed as nuclear warheads...
Detonation sequence
The mini-mag Orion concept attempts to counter some of the problems of the pusher-plate Orion. Instead of ejecting self-detonating nuclear pulse units, essentially nuclear bombs, it pulses units of nuclear fuel contained inside a Z-pinch device. They cannot detonate on their own, instead relying on a strong burst of electricity to compress the nuclear fuel until it detonates. The fission products are captured by a magnetic field and translated into thrust.

This technique can be extended for use with fusion pulse units, with even greater performance and less radioactive products.

The advantage is that misfired nuclear pulse units are no longer a liability. Each unit can also be much smaller, and the acceleration smoother The disadvantage is that you now have to rely on a bank of capacitors for every single detonation. Those capacitors have to be recharged by an onboard nuclear reactor, with a host of new problems. 

The MM-Orion just trades a political problem for a mechanical problem.
Laser-initiated fusion
More advanced propulsion concepts use fusion energy. Much easier than trying to sustain the fusion reaction, is to pulse it.

Pulsed fusion propulsion usually uses a variant of inertial confinement. This is when the pellet of fusion fuels are dropped into the reaction chamber, and it is detonated by use of lasers or electromagnetic effects. These ignition mechanisms heat up the pellet's external surface so quickly that it explodes. The pressures and temperatures generated compress the interior of the pellet until it undergoes fusion.

The fusion products are them captured by magnetic fields. Propellant can be injected alongside the pellets to increase thrust.

This type of engine is very complex, involving the simultaneous use of several systems that have to be synchronized on atomic timescales.

The lasers, for example, have to all aim at the exact center of a tiny ball of frozen fusion fuels. Any deviation, such as, jitter from the previous detonation, can cause the pellet to fly off to the side and fail to detonate.

The lasers also need a clean path. Using propellant to increase your thrust creates an obstruction that reduces the energy delivered to the pellet. If too much propellant is in the chamber, it might absorb the lasers and heat up. Hot propellant would change the frozen pellet's trajectory and render the engine un-usable until it has cleared. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that propellant, until it has been blasted by a fusion detonation, is not ionized and thus uncontrollable by magnetic of electric fields.

In a zeta-pinch device, if ionized propellant from a previous detonation remains, it might conduct electricity. 

The pellets themselves are rather delicate. Some can be naked fusion fuel, other are contained within hohlraums to better direct the ignition energy. In any case, they are susceptible to contamination, damage, neutron activation and other space travel nasties while being held in the fuel tanks. It is very likely that the fusion fuel will be prepared in batches specifically for use in a single burn. They'd have a short shelf-life, and be thrown out or recycled if they sit in a 'ready state' for too long.

Another possibility is antimatter-catalyzed pulsed fusion.
The ICAN-II proposal for fusion spacecraft
This option does away with energy intensive ignition mechanisms by using antimatter. This saves the spacecraft from having to include a large energy reactor and the problems associated by precision timing high-powered electric systems.

Instead, it adds the risks and dangers of storing size-able quantities of antimatter in addition to the usual fusion fuels. 

Also, a mis-firing of the ignition mechanism doesn't just waste a fusion pellet, but inserts a stream of antimatter into the reaction chamber. If it is not evacuated quickly enough by magnetic fields, it will prematurely ignite the next pellet or hit the reactor walls. 
The antimatter containment failed?
Well, that's all for this rather speculative list. Hopefully, you'll look up dramatic plot-points of your story and think about whether an imminent explosion is really necessary to create tension....


  1. "The pulse units also produce fallout. In an atmosphere, this would drift on air currents and affect places far from the launch site. In the upper atmosphere, it would produce EMP that would knock out electronics. In space, it is mostly harmless, but a spacecraft performing a retro-burn will have to fly through a cloud of radioactive debris. The outer surfaces would become contaminated and might prevent spacewalks."

    I doubt any of those would be serious issues with Orion drive spaceships. Orion propulsion units are very small - a 4000 t wet mass Orion design from the late 50s uses propulsion units with a yield of 140 tons TNT, and 300 of those would be fired to get into LEO - presumably one every few seconds, to match the few minutes to LEO insertion that conventional chemical rockets have.

    This on its own already solves the EMP issue - high-atmosphere EMP only occurs with relatively high-yield bombs, as far as I know, and I don't think the yields of subsequent bombs would add regarding the generation of EMP, especially as when in the upper atmosphere, the spacecraft will already be moving at several kilometers per second.

    The fallout problem is for one abated by the low amount of nuclear material due to the low total yield (at an assumed 10% fission efficiency) would require the fissioning of about 22.3 kg of Pu-239 - only a little less than four times the amount of Pu-239 in the Fat Man atomic bomb used on Nagasaki. Most of these detonations will be airbursts, i.e. ones in which no significant amounts of ground materials are sucked up into the fireball. Thus, the only fallout is in the form of the condensed fission products, which, as a very fine dust, will take quite a while and disperse widely before raining out.

    As for nuclear contamination of the spacecraft, I do not think that will be a problem at all. The fission products will leave, a large part of them directed rearwards with the propellant jet, at the exhaust velocity of the Orion drive, which is measured in tens of kilometers per second. There is thus not a serious concern of fission products condensing onto the spacecraft.

    One possible Orion drive concern you didn't directly mention is that, if the pulse units prove to be insufficiently absorbent to neutrons, the pusher plate may suffer from neutron embrittlement and activation, after all about 20% of the weapon's yield is released in the form of neutron radiation - though of course this could be counteracted by a sufficient choice of materials.

    1. Welcome to the blog, Zuthal Soraniz!
      Agreed, some of the issues raised with the Orion pulse drive are not very significant, but that is only the case with certain designs and for a single launch.

      A larger Orion would create bigger EMP pulses, but the issue is that very satellite in orbit today would have to hardened against these blasts, which is a cost of billions. Many technologies which cannot be protected, such as thin-film solar panels and sensitive radio instruments, won't survive.

      As for contamination: one launch would be okay... but several launches will release tons of uranium into the atmosphere per year in the worst form possible. People will object!

  2. I notice it looks like the Orion spacecraft is launching from roughly northern Ontario or Quebec. The Gulf of St Lawrence is visible behind the spacecraft to the south.
    The politics of launching from outside the US might cause some difficulty, but there might be an actual good reason to launch from so far from the equator

  3. Acclerator driven fission should make NSWR a possibility. Thorium with whatever remass will be injected in the reaction chamber the acclerator system will provide nutrons for the thorium to fission.

    Thorium is safe (no neutron absorbing tubes needed) and you will use a very small amount of it at the same time.

    1. That's a neat idea. Thorium cannot be used as fuel directly, and you cannot turn it into Uranium 233 inside a NSWR, but the use of an accelerator to drive criticality in a stream of fissile salts in water can have a lot of built in safety.

      Most importantly, if you switch off the accelerator, there is no more risk of the fuel collecting in dangerous densities and causing an explosion.

    2. Wouldn't thorium be too long to react? Adding neutrons to stable thorium isotopes seem to only produce isotopes that have, a long half-life. The best seems to be Th232 + n -> Th233, which has a half-life of 22 min. That seems too long to work in a NSWR.
      Or neutrons would have a different effect?

    3. Eth: Unless there are strong economic reasons for it, it is unlikely that a rocket engine like an NSWR will be creating its own fuel. The extra equipment is basically a second nuclear reactor. It is best to use uranium from fuel tanks directly.

    4. My bad, I hadn't realized that Th232 could be fissioned directly with fast neutrons. I thought you had to have it absorb a neutron to turn into an unstable isotope.

    5. No no, let me be clear: Thorium has no place on a Nuclear Salt Water Rocket. You use Uranium instead.

  4. I dont know what fission has to do with half -life I think if you give enough neutron to thorium it should go critical .

    BTW can we use neutron reflectors to focus the neutrons on a fission fusion pellet and drive a antimatter catalysed fission-fusion without antimatter.

    1. The accelerator can shoot protons into a target material and knock off neutrons from its atoms, creating a neutron source exactly where you want it. That way, we have no need for heavy neutron reflectors.

  5. Can the target material be the fissile material itself?

  6. If closed cycle and open cycle both heats the propellant primarily by Xrays why does open cycle performs better than closed one.

    1. I ment uv rays. Sry for inconvenience

    2. The closed cycle gas core reactor must reduce its temperature enough that the quartz tubes holding the uranium gas not melt. Reduced temperature means reduce exhaust velocity.