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This article dated. 2013 writes to say

After a multi-decade hiatus, both NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency (which developed many of its own NTRs during the Cold War but never physically tested their designs) announced in April 2012 that they would be revival of nuclear-engine powered rocket technology and coordinating a new $600 million joint engine project along with potential involvement from France, Britain, Germany, China, and Japan

The then powers-that-be brought the Outer Space Treaty (henceforth, OST) into existence. The development reported above brings to mind the questions

  • Whether the reported article is accurate?
  • Whether consultations are under-way at present to amend OST?
  • Whether Roscosmos, ESA, NASA et.al may revive nuclear-engine space technology without violating the OST?
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1  
OST does nothing to prohibit NTRs. The USSR apparently did test their NTR at the Semipalatinsk test site, although in a non-explosive mode. I srsly doubt there are ongoing bilateral US-Russkies talks on space exploration due to the war in Ukraine. –  Deer Hunter Aug 20 at 19:12
    
@DeerHunter's logic has another point: that article, Wikipedia, and Wikipedia's "source" are all from 2013. By now, the project may have been cancelled - especially because of the war in Ukraine. –  HDE 226868 Aug 20 at 20:08
    
Methinks talks on space may be kept separate from the mish-mash in Ukraine - I know i'd want to do that but nations aren't individuals ((+: –  Everyone Aug 21 at 3:00

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Whether the reported article is accurate?

It's rather bad in my opinion. The news is outdated and incorrect. This part was completely incorrect:

After a multi-decade hiatus, both NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency (which developed many of its own NTRs during the Cold War but never physically tested their designs) announced in April 2012 that they would be revival of nuclear-engine powered rocket technology and coordinating a new $600 million joint engine project along with potential involvement from France, Britain, Germany, China, and Japan.

What is wrong with that?

  • It was April 2011, not 2012.
    Getting the year wrong is a perhaps minor quibble. Getting completely wrong what NASA and Roscosmos agreed to is anything but a minor quibble. What happened is that Russia and NASA agreed to "talk". A meeting scheduled for April 15, 2011 was announced on April 5, 2011.
  • As far as I can tell, those talks went nowhere.
    There were no announcements from NASA or Russia after this meeting. If something had come out of that meeting, you would have heard about it three years ago.
  • The $600 million figure should be 17 billion rubles.
    That's how much Russia alone had planned to spend in this area, with or without support from other governments. Whether that spending is actually happening, that's a different story.

There's a lot of other not-quite-right stuff in that article. Yes, NASA is funding spending on nuclear thermal propulsion. NASA funds all kinds of futuristic projects, but at very low levels. This is one of many. Whether any of these projects come to fruition is a different question. Some of them do.

Whether consultations are under-way at present to amend OST?
Whether Roscosmos, ESA, NASA et.al may revive nuclear-engine space technology without violating the OST?

There's no need to do that. The Outer Space Treaty forbids putting weapons of mass destruction in space. A nuclear power plant and a nuclear bomb are very different things. The materials used in a nuclear power plant are not fissile. Nuclear power plants not only do not explode but they can not explode. They are not weapons.


References

This October 2009 RIA Novosti article covered Roscosmos's announcement that they would begin working on a nuclear-powered rocket, at an estimated cost of 17 billion rubles. You can also read about this announcement in this Christian Science Monitor article and this article from wired.com.

This January 2010 RIA Novosti article announced the allocation of 500 million rubles (16.7 million dollars) on the project. You can also read about this in this article from the Register.

This early April 2011 RIA Novosti article briefly alludes to a then upcoming meeting between the heads of Roscosmos and NASA. This mid-April 2011 RIA Novosti article gives slightly more detail on those talks. You can also read about this April 2011 meeting in this April 2011 space-travel.com article.

I can't find any reliable sources for what the outcome of that meeting was.

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I can't find any sources that corroborate, confirm, or falsify the article, so I'm going to treat it as if it was accurate, in order to answer the question. That said, given some of the articles (complete with an obscenity or two) that popped up when I first saw the site, I wouldn't exactly cite this thing in a publication, report, essay, paper, . . . You get the idea.

Would this violate the OST? (Bullet #3)

There's good news here, and then there's bad news. The good news is that the project would not violate the OST (see http://history.nasa.gov/1967treaty.html for a detailed transcript). The treaty does not prohibit peaceful detonations; however, it does prohibit detonations of weapons (see Article IV). Great, right? In fact, the program wouldn't even detonate anything (at least, not on purpose) - it would use a nuclear reactor. So the OST would be non-applicable because no detonations would be taking place. The program should be fine.

We've been putting nuclear-related power sources (well, primarily RTGs - radioisotope thermoelectric generators) in space for quite some time. They are an excellent source of power for satellites and unmanned spacecraft - such as the Pioneer probes. There shouldn't be any opposition, given the success of these devices. The big differences are that most previous nuclear devices were RTGs, not nuclear rectors, and only provided electrical power to the spacecraft - the nuclear reactor one proposed would power the engine.

Notice that I said unmanned. There are quite a few concerns about humans and nuclear-powered craft - after all, how many people do you know that would enjoy spending months 50 feet from a nuclear reactor? Health problems are, or course, on the top of the list, and an emergency - think a mini-meltdown - could be un-fixable.

I think that the reasons outlined above would make any modifications to the treaty unnecessary (Bullet #2). That is, as long as the rockets kept on using nuclear reactors. You may have heard of Project Orion - the crazy idea to power a spacecraft via "nuclear pulses" (dropping mini nuclear bombs out the back). Well, aside from the obvious health risks, there is another issue with this type of propulsion. The OST? Hardly. It allows for peaceful detonations. Such a rocket would, however, violate a little something called the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 (also called the Limited Test Ban Treaty, as well as a dozen or so other names), which makes any detonations aboveground (and thus in the atmosphere or outer space) illegal. So should an international consortium decide to, for some reason, go in that direction, then the PNTBT would need to be modified. Fortunately, it doesn't seem that the project is going, or ever will go, in that direction.

Like I said before, the only part of your question I can't answer is the first part (Bullet #1). There is a brief mention of something on the Wikipedia page for Nuclear Thermal Rockets, but I can't find anything else (its source is here: http://www.space-travel.com/reports/NASA_Researchers_Studying_Advanced_Nuclear_Rocket_Technologies_999.html).

I hope this helps.

Edit

You can find a transcript of the PNTBT at http://www.state.gov/t/isn/4797.htm.

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The Pioneer probes did not use nuclear reactors, they used RTGs. Few nuclear reactors have been flown in space; only SNAP-10A (US) and the RORSAT series (USSR). –  pericynthion Aug 20 at 18:32
    
Oops, sorry, I used "nuclear reactor" to refer to devices involving nuclear technology. You're right, though, there is a big difference. I'll change that. Thanks. –  HDE 226868 Aug 20 at 18:34

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