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Boeing reviving work on nuclear converter

CANOGA PARK, Calif., Oct. 3 (UPI) -- With new funding from NASA, Boeing is poised to restart development of a proposed nuclear-powered electrical converter the agency is eyeing for future robotic probes and human spacecraft, company officials said Thursday.

"With nuclear power, you're moving all the time and you can slow down when you want, achieve orbit and have tens of kilowatts of power to do science," Richard Rovang, with Boeing's Rocketdyne division, told United Press International.

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"You could stay in orbit around another planet for tens of years or you could do a tour of a number of different bodies," he said.

The Boeing proposal is being developed in an elaborate partnership with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the agency's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, as well as Honeywell Aerospace of Phoenix, Swales Aerospace of Beltsville, Md., Auburn University of Montgomery, Ala., and Texas A&M University of College Station. Also, the Department of Energy is overseeing development of nuclear reactors for space systems, while NASA is looking at electrical power converters and propulsion systems.

The Boeing project is among three power conversion systems that will be receiving NASA funds as soon as federal budget issues are resolved for fiscal year 2003, which began Oct. 1.

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"There are several different technologies for power conversion," said project manager Steven Johnson, with the Glenn Research Center. For example, last year NASA unveiled plans to restart nuclear research to power spacecraft dispatched beyond Earth for scientific studies. Not only would the spacecraft have more power and shave off years of travel time, but nuclear-powered craft can be maneuvered more easily to handle a variety of missions, said Johnson.

NASA officials said the agency has no plans to develop nuclear-powered launch systems, however. That possibility is being avoided because nuclear power has been controversial on Earth for decades, with critics questioning the safety of the systems. Nuclear's role in space also is questionable, particularly regarding the subject of military systems.

Boeing's project, which is based on a technology called the Brayton Power Conversion System, originally was designed in the late 1980s under the first Bush administration, which launched a program called the Space Exploration Initiative. That program was aborted and the converter mothballed until this year.

"Using BPCS technology as a baseline concept will satisfy all design requirements and minimize cost, development time and risk to the program," said Rovang.

Key features of the technology already have been demonstrated in jet aircraft and terrestrial power plants. Among the challenges the team faces is designing a system that is small and lightweight, yet able to operate at temperatures that surpass 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

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The overall value of the contract is $7 million, with initial funding of $1 million for a six-month study, said Rovang. Separate contracts also will be awarded to teams led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., said Johnson.

(Reported by Irene Brown, UPI Science News, at Cape Canaveral, Fla.)

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