Integrated Propulsion and Power Modeling for Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rockets

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2007-10-08

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Abstract

Bimodal nuclear thermal rocket (BNTR) engines have been shown to reduce the weight of space vehicles to the Moon, Mars, and beyond by utilizing a common reactor for propulsion and power generation. These savings lead to reduced launch vehicle costs and/or increased mission safety and capability. Experimental work of the Rover/NERVA program demonstrated the feasibility of NTR systems for trajectories to Mars. Numerous recent studies have demonstrated the economic and performance benefits of BNTR operation.

Relatively little, however, is known about the reactor-level operation of a BNTR engine. The objective of this dissertation is to develop a numerical BNTR engine model in order to study the feasibility and component-level impact of utilizing a NERVA-derived reactor as a heat source for both propulsion and power. The primary contribution is to provide the first-of-its-kind model and analysis of a NERVA-derived BNTR engine.

Numerical component models have been modified and created for the NERVA reactor fuel elements and tie tubes, including 1-D coolant thermodynamics and radial thermal conduction with heat generation. A BNTR engine system model has been created in order to design and analyze an engine employing an expander-cycle nuclear rocket and Brayton cycle power generator using the same reactor.

Design point results show that a 316 MWt reactor produces a thrust and specific impulse of 66.6 kN and 917 s, respectively. The same reactor can be run at 73.8 kWt to produce the necessary 16.7 kW electric power with a Brayton cycle generator. This demonstrates the feasibility of BNTR operation with a NERVA-derived reactor but also indicates that the reactor control system must be able to operate with precision across a wide power range, and that the transient analysis of reactor decay heat merits future investigation.

Results also identify a significant reactor pressure-drop limitation during propulsion and power-generation operation that is caused by poor tie tube thermal conductivity. This leads to the conclusion that, while BNTR operation is possible with a NERVA-derived reactor, doing so requires careful consideration of the Brayton cycle design point and fuel element survivability.

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