Associated Press Writer
MOSCOW—President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday threw his weight behind a proposal to build a nuclear-powered space ship and give Russia an edge in the space race.
But the official statements after a government meeting left key questions unanswered, and environmentalists expressed concern.
Federal Space Agency chief Anatoly Perminov told the meeting that the preliminary design could be ready by 2012. He said it would then take nine years and 17 billion rubles ($600 million, 400 million euros) to build the ship.
Medvedev, who chaired a government meeting on new communications and space technologies, hailed the plan and ordered the Cabinet to find the money for it. But the stated ambition contrasted with slow progress on building a replacement to the mainstay Russian spacecraft, sounding more like a plea for extra government cash than a detailed proposal.
"It's a very serious project," said Medvedev, who chaired the meeting on communications and space technologies. "We need to find the money."
Perminov told the meeting his plan would put Russia ahead of foreign competitors in space. It "will allow us to reach a new technological level surpassing foreign developments," he said.
Perminov described the proposed nuclear-powered spaceship as a "unique breakthrough project," but offered few details.
He referred to the proposed spacecraft as a "transport and energy module," and it was unclear whether that referred to crew or cargo.
Perminov also said nothing about the prospective ship's mission, leaving it unclear whether it was intended for near-Earth low-orbit missions like the existing Soyuz spacecraft or will go deeper into space.
Stanley Borowski, a senior engineer at NASA specializing in nuclear rocket engines, said they have many advantages for deep space missions, such as to take astronauts and gear to Mars. In deep space, nuclear rockets are twice as fuel-efficient, as conventional rocket fuel, he said.
"We never talk about using them for earth-to-orbit launch," he told The Associated Press, adding that they could expose the crew and people near the launch site to radiation. "The way they have always talked about it in NASA missions is for use in deep space."
NASA also has used small amounts of plutonium in deep space probes, including those to Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto and heading out of the solar system.
Upcoming NASA missions using plutonium as a propellant include the over-budget and delayed Mars Science Laboratory, set to launch in 2011, and a mission to tour the solar system's outer planets scheduled for launch in 2020.
The only planetary mission considered by Russia is a plan to send a probe to one of Mars' twin moons, Phobos. It was set to launch this year, but was delayed.
The Russian space agency also has mulled over prospective missions to the moon and Mars but hasn't set a specific time frame for any of them yet.
Perminov and other officials said in the past that Russia needs a new spaceship to replace the old Soyuz for missions in Earth orbit, but they only have talked about a ship powered by a conventional rocket fuel so far.
Russia is using Soyuz booster rockets and capsules, developed 40 years ago, to send crews to the International Space Station. Development of a replacement rocket and a prospective spaceship with a conventional propellant has dragged on with no end in sight.
But Russia stands to take a greater role in space exploration in the coming years. NASA's plan to retire its shuttle fleet next year will force the United States and other nations to rely on the Russian spacecraft to ferry their astronauts to the International Space Station and back to Earth until NASA's new manned ship becomes available.
Perminov said the ship will have a megawatt-class nuclear reactor, as opposed to small nuclear reactors that powered previous Soviet satellites. The Cold-War era Soviet spy satellites had reactors that produced just a few kilowatts of power and a life span of just about a year.
One of them, the derelict Cosmos-954 nuclear-powered satellite, scattered radioactive debris over northern Canada on its fiery re-entry in 1978, but caused no injuries in the lightly populated area.
Environmental activists warn the plan for a new nuclear-powered ship with a bigger reactor could be potentially hazardous.
"There has been some previous experience in using nuclear reactors in space, and it has been negative," said Vladimir Chuprov, a Greenpeace activist in Russia. "It's dangerous to put nuclear materials in space, they pose risks at re-entry."
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report.