Nuclear ‘Flying Chernobyl’ missile dramatically expands space prospects of Russia

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This post was published in Vzglyad. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.


MOSCOW, (BM)“Flying Chernobyl” – this is how US President’s special envoy Mark Billingsley called the Russian nuclear cruise missile “Burevestnik”. It is understandable why Washington is unhappy with the latest Russian weapons. However, the significance of this missile goes far beyond military scope. In the future, this development is capable of returning Russia’s leadership in space exploration.

To begin with, let’s make a reservation right away – the Petrel’s military significance is limited. As a weapon of retaliation, this missile makes no sense – if we do not miss the first strike from the Americans, then our retaliatory strike will wipe the United States off the face of the Earth anyway. And if we oversleep such an attack, then a few “Petrel” who survive it will not change anything dramatically. So maybe the Americans are right, and it would be better for ourselves to close this project?

Not. The fact is that in any case, the program for the creation of the “Petrel” can yield many results, much more important than another type of missile in service. Apart from the purely military results of the project (which we still do not know when we will wait), it already has an intermediate result with important scientific and technological significance. Yes, the Burevestniki are still flying very close. But no one else has anything comparable today. Let’s turn to the history of the issue.

Nuclear powered flight

People have dreamed of using the energy of the atom for flying vehicles since the thirties of the last century, but the first steps were taken after the Second World War. The customers of the projects both in the USSR and in the USA were the military – their goal was to strike at the enemy’s territory, and it was far away, and they needed aircraft with a huge range, not limited by the fuel supply on board.

Soon, the USA launched a project to create an NB-36 bomber with a reactor on board, and in the USSR – Tu-119. In no case was a flight on atomic engines performed, but both we and the Americans came close to this and were quite ready. True, these planes were not jet. At the same time, theoretical work on a ramjet engine was carried out in the USSR, which had a small-sized nuclear reactor as a heat source instead of burning fuel.

In the USA, similar work was going on in the framework of the Pluto project. It was planned to create a nuclear ramjet engine for the SLAM intercontinental unmanned bomber – essentially a giant cruise missile with a nuclear reactor, which was supposed to deliver thermonuclear bombs to targets on Soviet territory, simultaneously killing all living things along the route due to the shock wave created by the supersonic (more than four “sounds”) and low-altitude (less than 300 meters) flight. In addition to the shock wave, the radioactive exhaust of the rocket would “work” on people – the air for the jet thrust would be driven directly through the reactor and, in addition to the continuous strip of destruction along the route of the “missile”, a strip of the strongest radioactive contamination would also be created.

The most difficult part of this project was the nuclear ramjet engine, and it was successfully created by the Americans and tested in the course of ground tests – also successfully.

However, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) canceled all these projects, they became simply unnecessary, and the risks of ICBMs fueled by conventional chemical fuel created ten times less. But that was not the end.

In 1974, in response to the US Space Shuttle program (which was of military importance), the USSR launched a program to create its own Soviet aerospace aircraft. The Tupolev Design Bureau began a project today known as the Tu-2000. It envisaged the creation of a single-stage system for flights to low-earth orbit, in fact, a large aircraft capable of going into space on its own engines, and with a glider capable of withstanding being in outer space and entering the atmosphere.

The Tupolevites assumed first to build a hypersonic aircraft, test it, and in the second stage of the project to storm space. And the Myasishchev Design Bureau decided to “take” space immediately. But how?

The fact is that no single-stage apparatus operating on chemical fuel could go into space then, and cannot even now. Overcoming gravity is a huge energy cost. Huge energy consumption – these are engines with very powerful thrust, but they require a lot of fuel on board, and a lot of fuel is a large mass, which also requires a large aircraft structure, which together requires even more powerful engines that … Exit none of these vicious circles.

In rocketry, the problem is solved by separating the rocket stages – as soon as the fuel in the stage tanks is used up, it is separated together with the engines, and there is no need to carry the “dead” load with you into orbit. With an airplane, that won’t work. You need to have traction and not have large supplies of fuel on board. Then everything will work out, but what source of energy to use for this?

Soon, work on the creation of an atomic space plane started. At the Myasishchev Design Bureau, the project was carried out as M-19. For some time, the project had serious government support and went pretty fast. The task was simplified to some extent, because earlier the OKB im. Lyulki conducted extensive research on nuclear turbojet engines of various schemes – they differed from conventional gas turbine engines in that instead of a combustion chamber, heat was supplied to the engine from a nuclear reactor.

In M-19, it was supposed to use the so-called double-circuit scheme, when there is no contact between the working fluid of the engines and the reactor. As a result, neither during the operation of turbojet engines, nor during the operation of ramjet engines accelerating the aircraft to hypersonic speeds, no radiation contamination of the air would occur. It would begin, however, at an altitude of more than fifty kilometers, when the plane would go into acceleration due to the nuclear jet engine, with the direct supply of the working fluid (hydrogen) into the reactor and its exit into the jet nozzle. But even there it was possible to smooth out the negative effects.

In the 80s, the project lost its intradepartmental competition to the Energia-Buran program and gradually faded away. In addition, the USSR had experimental work on a nuclear anti-submarine aircraft with an unlimited flight range on the basis of the An-22 Antey transport aircraft and a theoretical study of possible engines for cruise missiles of various types. Apparently, part of this groundwork was used in the “Petrel” project. At least, the fact that some sluggish research on ramjet nuclear engines was carried out back in the early 2000s is a fact.

And then they showed us a nuclear cruise missile.

Realities and potential

It is not known exactly what type of engine was used on the Burevestnik cruise missile. It can be a ramjet engine or a turbojet. The only thing that is known about the “Petrel” is absolutely certain (from the video of the bow, which was published by the Ministry of Defense), is that it is not hypersonic. Most likely it is a subsonic missile.

However, it can also be safely asserted that the Petrel’s engine is single-circuit – the air, the heating of which is used to create jet thrust, in this rocket contacts the reactor itself, and not with some kind of intermediate heat exchanger. The emissions of radioactive isotopes, which are now regularly detected in Europe, testify to this.

Such an engine is quite suitable for weapons used in a nuclear war – nature will not be much worse from it. But apart from that, it is not suitable for anything.

On the other hand, the technologies and knowledge gained during the development of such an engine, as well as the presence of a compact but powerful reactor, which, without any doubt, is one of the most advanced reactors in the world at the moment, in the near future makes it possible to create a double-circuit engine in which the coolant the reactor gives off heat (but not radiation!) to the “intermediate” coolant of the second circuit, and already it – to the working fluid of the engine. And then we get a turbojet engine suitable for an aircraft, which does not generate radiation contamination of the terrain over which the flight takes place.

And the placement on such an aircraft either a nuclear jet engine (if it is possible to create protection of the working fluid from radiation), or at least some highly efficient liquid-jet engine with high thrust will already make it possible to launch such an aircraft into space. And then the long-term dreams of engineers about a transport system capable of delivering people and cargo to near-earth orbit without any detachable stages will become a reality. How much this will change our world, it is even impossible to imagine.

Of course, this is very far away, even if the development of the project is given the green light in this direction, if funding is allocated. But in any case, Burevestnik is the first step in this very direction. There is no guarantee that the first step will be followed by the second – we are not the first to miss out on great opportunities. But we are already doing the first one anyway!

The suspension of work on the “Petrel” from a military point of view, Russia would not weaken, here the Americans, oddly enough, are right. But from the point of view of future potential, everything looks very different. “Petrel” may, sometime in the distant future, bring us an insurmountable superiority for all other countries in space exploration.

However, some people are already thinking about it.

In 2019, it became known that there are supporters of the creation of a rocket plane with a nuclear power plant in Roscosmos. RIA Novosti, referring to the document that came to the agency’s disposal, published the following quotation from it: “The planning of promising development of reusable space systems should also include consideration of fundamentally new layouts, such as rocket planes with nuclear propulsion systems. Such systems can change the space launch vehicle market in the future and create new market niches. “

So the small radioactive “Petrel” may take us not at all where many think. Like the R-7 rocket by Sergei Korolev, which never delivered nuclear warheads to the United States, work on nuclear jet engines could have a very interesting continuation. The R-7 had a satellite, Gagarin and the Soyuz family of launch vehicles. Burevestnik may have even more ambitious prospects. We all just need to want it very badly, and everything will work out.


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