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NASA plans to send nuclear electric powered robot to Jupiter

By Frank Sietzen
Washington (UPI) March 29, 2004
NASA's new strategy for sending humans back to the moon or onward to Mars includes employing a race of advanced robots -- some of which will be tested within five years -- on interplanetary jaunts to the farthest locations in the solar system.

The new robotic probes will be fueled by a new generation of rockets powered by a new class of atomic powerplants that will give the spacecraft unprecedented capabilities, agency officials told United Press International.

Based on NASA's latest roadmap that supports President Bush's space exploration vision, which was unveiled on Jan. 14, the new missions will begin in 2008 with a robotic craft orbiting the moon and imaging its surface features. But the hardiest space robots under design will set sail well beyond Earth's vicinity. They will follow the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft to continue studying the frozen worlds orbiting the planet Jupiter.

In the mid 1990s, the Galileo probe found evidence that oceans of liquid water lay beneath thick sheets of ice on Europa, Callisto and Ganymede -- three of the four largest moons orbiting Jupiter.

The new probe, called the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, or JiMo, will be designed to bring 21st-century instruments and technology to examine the Galilean moons -- so named because they were discovered by Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1610 -- ever more deeply.

NASA's current plan calls for the JiMo mission to be launched into high Earth orbit by a new version of today's Atlas or Delta space boosters. Once in orbit, JiMo then would unfold into a spacecraft more than 100 feet long. It would carry a new type of rocket motor and a powerful new nuclear reactor that would drive the probe's experiments and, in smaller versions, perhaps smaller, separate probes launched from the mothership.

The idea behind JiMo is to flight-test new technologies that eventually would be aimed at closer targets, such as moon landings. The mission is part of the NASA's new building-block strategy for space exploration, according to NASA space architect Gary Martin.

"Mars is not a stopping point," Martin said. "Some of our studies looked at what the next location past Mars would be."

NASA identified Jupiter's Galilean moons because they, as Mars once did, may harbor liquid water. Using its new powerplant, which is being developed under an effort called Project Prometheus, JiMo would be able to visit the frozen worlds for years at a time, changing orbits at will to investigate newly discovered and interesting features located by its onboard imaging systems.

The added capabilities offered by Prometheus also would make it possible for JiMo to send down space probes that could function as mini-submersibles, plunging into and burrowing through the frozen ice fields to dive deeply into the alien oceans. The space subs then would transmit back their discoveries -- possibly including images -- to JiMo in orbit, which would relay the data back to mission controllers on Earth.

"What are some promising scientifically driven exploration locations?" Martin asked. "You can change the whole way you do science because you can circle each of the icy moons of Jupiter, but you also have the power when you are done doing the science around one (moon) you can go on to the other."

Eventually, the Prometheus system that will be test-flown aboard JiMo will be used to help power astronauts' base camps while on the moon's surface.

"These are building blocks," Martin explained.

"In due course, human explorers will follow," said Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator.

Depending on what the robot explorers discover on Mars, or the moons of Jupiter, O'Keefe said, "this is a stepping stone approach, and we will adjust accordingly to be adaptive and flexible in our approach."

All rights reserved. Copyright 2004 by United Press International. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by United Press International. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of by United Press International.

The Myth of Low-Thrust Propulsion
by Jeffrey F. Bell
Honolulu - Mar 30, 2004
The announcement of Preident Bush's new space initiative has unleashed a flurry of activity in the space engineering community. Many design groups are drawing up plans for new spacecraft and new technologies that could be used for future manned missions to Mars.

Nuclear Hammers and Nuclear Hamstrings
Washington - Feb 20, 2002
In the proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2003 NASA has announced a major new technology development initiative in nuclear power and nuclear propulsion. A renewed commitment by NASA to develop nuclear propulsion for deep-space travel can only be applauded. But there are many popular misconceptions about nuclear propulsion, and with a time-critical mission to the planet Pluto in the balance, it is timely to discuss what in-space nuclear propulsion is - and what it is not.

NASA Looks To Department Of Energy For Nuclear Space Tech
 Washington - Mar 22, 2004
The Department of Energy's (DOE) Naval Reactors (NR) Program has joined NASA in its effort to investigate and develop space nuclear power and propulsion technologies for civilian applications. These activities could enable unprecedented space exploration missions and scientific return unachievable with current technology.

Facing Pandora's Box Of Nuclear Myths And Prejudices
Brisbane - Feb 12, 2003
Movies such as 'Star Wars' and 'Lord of the Rings' have set a new standard in film making. Demonstrating that old favorites can be counted upon to attract moviegoers if you do it right and sequels even pre-planned. New favorites can also be relied on for repeat returns on an investment. Harry Potter had no less than seven sequels lined up. But it has to be said that some stories never seem to lose their appeal.

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