Russia is planning to send a nuclear-powered spacecraft to the grand gas giant of the Solar System, Jupiter, in 2030.
Roscosmos, Russia's federal space agency, announced the plan for the mammoth 50-month journey last week. The journey will take it on a mini tour of the Solar System, taking pit stops around the Moon and Venus, dropping off spacecraft along its way, before heading on to Jupiter.
More specifically, a "space tug” with a nuclear-based transport and energy module dubbed Zeus will head towards the Moon where a spacecraft will separate from it. It will then pass by Venus to perform a gravity assist maneuver and drop off another spacecraft, before venturing towards Jupiter and one of its satellites.
"Together with the Russian Academy of Sciences, we're are now making calculations about this flight’s ballistics and payload," Roscosmos Executive Director for Long-Term Programs and Science Alexander Bloshenko told reporters, according to TASS news agency.
Most spacecraft use solar panels that convert the Sun's energy into electricity. However, the deeper a spacecraft goes into the Solar System, the further it strays from the Sun and less solar energy is available. While batteries can be used for backup, some missions – such as Cassini and Voyager – have been powered from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which is a bit like a nuclear battery that uses heat from the radioactive decay of isotopes. RTGs are not nuclear reactors, however, as a chain reaction does not take place.
The new Zeus project, by comparison, is a whole nuclear reactor that will use fission reactions to drive the propulsion. In the words of Russian state media, it’s a “secrecy-laden project in development since 2010” that involves a 500-kilowatt nuclear reactor, weighing around 22 tons.
Nuclear-powered space travel holds many advantages over solar-powered: it's relatively cheap, extremely reliable, and can garner a huge amount of energy.
The Soviet Union launched a bunch of nuclear reactors into space during the Cold War as part of the RORSAT missions, a set of Soviet nuclear spy satellites launched between 1967 and 1988. On the other hand, the US has launched just one: SNAP-10A or SNAPSHOT, a nuclear-reactor power system launched in 1965.
The US has regained interest in nuclear-powered space travel over the past few decades. Just recently, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has commissioned three private companies – Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics – to develop nuclear fission thermal rockets for use in lunar orbit, with the goal of demonstrating the technology above low Earth orbit in 2025.