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Project Prometheus

The five year, $800 million NASA Project Prometheus (formerly the Nuclear Systems Initiative) -- to be managed by NASA's Office of Space Science and coordinated with the Department of Energy would fund the development of new nuclear power generation and nuclear propulsion systems. The Nuclear Systems Initiative currently includes three elements; an advanced RTG power source which will see first use on the 2009 Mars Mobile Laboratory, Nuclear Fission Power, and Nuclear Fission Propulsion. These systems will enable complex surface operations over extended periods of time, and allow for complex spacecraft maneuvering. For distant planets it will also lead to reduced travel times. It will not, however, be useful for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the wisest of the Titans, and he gave the gift of fire to humanity. The name Prometheus means 'forethought.'

NASA managers are turning toward nuclear power to propel space probes to other planets and to provide decades-long power supplies for a probe's communications and science equipment. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said : "It's going to finally, once and for all, break the technology limitations we've been living with for so many years, of speed and capacity, to get anywhere in a timely manner to perform discovery and science missions." Voyager probe missions to Jupiter and Saturn launched in 1977 took years to arrive at their destination. A planned launch to the outermost planet, Pluto, could take 15 years and would be a fly-by mission with no landing. O'Keefe said the Nuclear Systems Initiative could cut trip times to Pluto by half, allow for a landing and power science instruments for years.

Beginning in fiscal year 2003, the propulsion technologies unique to nuclear power systems will be managed under NASA's Nuclear Systems Initiative (NSI), including the High-Power Electric Propulsion and Power Conversion technologies. The total anticipated budget for High-Power Electric Propulsion and Power Conversion is $1 million in Fiscal Year 2002, $16 million in FY 2003, and $16 million in FY 2004, contingent on budget approval. Total anticipated budget for proposed work in the Aerocapture and Solar Sail areas under the ISP program is $2 million in FY 2002, $17 million in FY 2003, and $18 million in FY 2004, contingent on budget approval.

The Nuclear Systems Initiative is managed by the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters, and the power conversion and electric propulsion awards of NSI will be implemented by NASA's Glenn Research Center. The In-Space Propulsion Program is also supported by NASA's Ames Research Center; Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas; and Langley Research Center. NASA's partners in meeting the ambitious in-space propulsion goals include industry, the nation's academic institutions and other government agencies.

As NASA embarks on a new $1 billion Nuclear Systems Initiative, lawmakers are questioning the ageny's priorities. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), a member of the House Science Committee, asked Ed Weiler, NASA's space science chief, why the agency should spend $125 million in 2003 to study nuclear propulsion and develop new spacecraft nuclear power systems at a time when NASA cannot meet its International Space Station commitments. "We have our mouth full right now and we need to swallow what we have before we take another bite," Gordon said at a May 9 hearing on NASA science priorities. Weiler said the Nuclear Systems Initiative is crucial if NASA wants to accelerate its exploration of the solar system. "We are still doing exploration of our solar system in covered wagons," he said. "The Nuclear Systems Initiative will open up the railroad."

Referring to the natural limitations on the use of solar panels for power as craft move deeper into space, Administrator O'Keefe testified that "We have got to find a 'leap ahead' technology" and stated his view that nuclear power "may hold the key to overcoming the time/distance challenge" in deep space applications. Responding to the NASA proposal, Idaho Senator Larry Craig said, "The Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy has been a partner with NASA in all of its nuclear space initiatives and when it comes to the development of new, nuclear reactor technology, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and Argonne West are DOE's lead laboratories. Over the course of the last five decades, over 50 nuclear reactors have been built at the Site. Working jointly with NASA and DOE, I look forward to the contributions that Idaho can make to this new Nuclear Systems Initiative." Administrator O'Keefe responded that DOE will be significantly involved with the new initiative.

The proposed nuclear-powered spacecraft, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter [JIMO], had an earliest launch date of 2011.

The FY 2006 request is $319.6 million, a $112.1 million (or 26 percent) decrease from the FY 2005 budget. An investigation of Jupiter's icy moons will not be the first demonstration for Prometheus Nuclear Systems and Technology, as concerns over costs and technical complexity prompted NASA to defer the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission. NASA is now conducting an Analysis of Alternatives to identify a mission relevant to exploration and scientific goals, with reduced technical, schedule, and operational risk.

The request includes funding to continue work in the Advanced Systems and Technology program to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear technologies and engineered systems. This technology development will be necessary to support NASA's goal of more distant, more ambitious, and longer duration human and robotic exploration of Mars and other destinations. Specifically, this program will conduct advanced research and development for follow-on and second-generation advanced missions and applications.

The request includes funding for the Nuclear Flight Systems program to continue development of nuclear reactor power and associated spacecraft systems to enhance NASA's abilities to conduct robotic exploration and science operations. The Nuclear Flight System program maintains two interrelated activities in the development of its products. First, through the Department of Energy Office of Naval Reactors, the program sponsors the full spectrum of nuclear technology and engineering development activities to develop a space qualified nuclear power reactor. Concurrently, NASA is developing spacecraft structures, systems, and components that are suitable for integration with a high-power space nuclear reactor system.




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