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Certain missions, like the various NASA Mars Rovers (Curiosity, Perseverance, Opportunity, etc.) contained either RTGs for power generation or RTHs for heating purposes, and these contain nuclear material.

Unless the X-37 has a secret RTG in it, I don't think a F9 or FH has ever launched a spacecraft with any (significant amount of) radioactive material in it, and this brings me to the question: would it be allowed to do so?

I have vague recollections about rockets that launch payloads with nuclear material requiring some special allowance/certification and additional safety mechanisms and procedures being put into place for these launches--is this true?

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    $\begingroup$ For the last part: nodis3.gsfc.nasa.gov/… See Chapter 4 $\endgroup$ Jan 3 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ The next NASA mission to carry an MMRTG will be the Dragonfly mission to Titan, with a projected launch date in July 2028. Per the document to which @OrganicMarble linked, MMRTGs are Tier II devices, and that means launch vehicle procurement has to begin right about now, with LV selection about a year from now. $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ Related, but not a duplicate: What does it mean for a launcher to be 'nuclear-certified'? Since the Falcon 9 is now human-rated, it wouldn't be a huge step to get the Falcon 9 certified to carry a payload that contains an MMRTG. $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 13:33

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As far as I can tell Falcon 9 hasn't been certified to carry nuclear payloads. There's a separate certification process required https://nodis3.gsfc.nasa.gov/displayDir.cfm?Internal_ID=N_PR_8715_0026_&page_name=Chapter4

The lack of certification is likely due to lack of requirement, it may be largely a paperwork exercise to gain certification but if no customers have requested a nuclear launch it's not worth the investment.

With the retirement of existing nuclear certified launchers like Atlas 5, SpaceX might have a request for a nuclear launch in the near future but given the very niche nature of nuclear launches it might remain not worth investing in for them. With ULA having experience in the area, Vulcan Centaur is more likely to be the launcher to take on this work.

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  • $\begingroup$ I wonder how big the investment is going to be to certify Falcon 9. Unlike Vulcan Centaur, it is already crew-rated and unlike Vulcan Centaur, which so far has only launched shrapnel of its upper stage, it has 267 consecutive successful launches, including 11 with crew. That's more than Atlas V, Delta IV, and STS combined. From what I understand, nuclear rating really means Cat. 3 + making sure FTS does not damage the payload. Cat. 3 is already done, since it is part of crew rating, so all that's missing is a shrapnel analysis and maybe some sort of armor plating of the payload adapter. $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag We'll probably see in a few months when launch vehicle procurement for the Dragonfly mission to Titan should begin, and definitely see in a year when launch vehicle selection is complete. I suspect NASA would want Falcon 9 to be in the mix. As you noted, it's already crew-rated, so it's not a huge step. Maybe some armor, or maybe an adaptation of the Dragon to so as to safely escape launch vehicle self-destruct. $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag there's also staff training and facilities for handling radioactive material, another thing to consider is dealing with RTG waste heat before launch $\endgroup$ Jan 5 at 17:51

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