The Nuclear-Powered Aircraft That We'll Use to Explore Jupiter

Caroline Delbert
·4-min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • Jupiter is an especially good place to start exploring subatmospheric space in a nuclear airplane.

  • The gas giant’s thick atmosphere and lack of surface make it an ideal, low-harm site.

  • Building and iterating a Flyer spacecraft could unlock secrets of further exploration.

Could the key to interstellar exploration be a nuclear-powered flyer that circles Jupiter?

Jupiter is uniquely suited to this kind of exploration, Bulgarian scientists say in a new paper published to the preprint server arXiv, which means the research hasn't yet been peer-reviewed. That's because the planet boasts a few features that make it especially resilient against our human meddling.

The scientists say their proposed flyer, a "subatmospheric" craft designed to work best in the Jovian atmosphere, could break new ground for tailored outer spacecraft. Just how close are we to cruising around Jupiter? Let’s examine the gas giant that’s almost more star than planet.

The case for Jupiter is simple, the scientists from Sofia University write in their paper:

"Among the planets of the Solar System and their satellites, Jupiter is a viable target for exploration, since it features thick atmosphere suitable for aerodynamic flight, there is no solid surface that can be contaminated after end of the mission, and the atmospheric data for designing a Flyer is readily available."

Our main, imminent targets on the moon and Mars have almost no atmosphere. That’s fine, but it does pose a huge technological challenge as we think more and more about making both places habitable place for people, where their technology can continue to work despite the wildly different gravity, wind, and more.



Jupiter’s atmosphere, on the other hand, is instead so thick that we can basically fly regular airplanes that have some careful tuning to the physics and logistics of exploring the planet's atmosphere.

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Jupiter is so far from the sun that we can’t really rely on solar energy to propel an aircraft in the atmosphere. Nor can we rely on combustion, which requires oxygen; Jupiter's atmosphere is 90 percent hydrogen. The researchers, then, suggest a “nuclear battery” type of propulsion whose fuel could sustain for decades, and which doesn’t require oxygen or sunlight:

The nuclear fuel has extremely high energy density that allows for months, if not years, of sustainable flight before the fuel is depleted. Unlike chemical combustion, the nuclear reaction does not rely on oxygen to produce heat. This enables flight in anaerobic atmospheres and without the need of carrying oxidizer.

The engine can be designed as a ramjet, which relies on supersonic gas compression instead of turbo compressor to produce thrust, which has a number of advantages: it has few moving parts, which minimizes the risk of mechanical failure, and it is light. The latter is of paramount importance, given the capabilities of the launch vehicles and the cost to deliver every kilogram into orbit of other planets.

(Note: Renderings don't exist of the scientists' proposed flyer. The main image depicts NASA's concept for nuclear space propulsion.)

Jupiter is also one of the only places that makes sense for humans to explore at this juncture, the scientists say. Why? Because using a nuclear craft in a context where it will crash into a rocky surface means we’ve automatically contaminated another planet with radioactive material.

This rules out scientific darling Titan—our favorite moon, by the way—whose thick atmosphere covers a solid surface:

In case of rocky bodies with dense atmospheres like Venus and Titan, there is the moral obstacle of using nuclear power for aerodynamic flight, since the Flyer will ultimately crash into the surface and contaminate [the] local ecosystem with radioactive material. These considerations make gas giants a viable option for such a mission. They feature thick atmospheres with no hard surface and are particularly interesting for exploration, due to the presence of weather and different atmospheric phenomena.

By doing simple initial explorations on Jupiter, scientists could learn a great deal about both the planet itself and the technology in the first jovian Flyer. In fact, these researchers explain, missions like this could be key to unlocking resource usage “in situ”—meaning for extraction and use to make fuel for the return trip, for example, or for settlers planning to stay on other planets long term.

All it takes is an almost regular airplane with a nuclear-powered ramjet.

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