Thursday, 6 September 2012

The hidden history of Atomic Airplanes

In the late 1940s, as the Cold War began to heat-up, the Soviet Union began research into the development of nuclear reactors as power sources to drive warships. The problem with most fighter planes and military aircraft was that all of them had limited range. Some of the earliest experiments in aerial refueling took place in the 1920s; two slow-flying aircraft flew in formation, with a hose run down from a hand-held fuel tank on one aircraft and placed into the usual fuel filler of the other. The first mid-air refueling between two planes occurred on June 27, 1923.
Though possible, inflight refueling was impractical in the pre jet era due to weight issues and inferior power from propeller engines. World war two was fought with out a inflight fuel system. US Bombers B17 and B24 was generally massacred over Germany because fighter escorts simply could not fly that far. The fighter plane mustangs later reduced losses because they were equipped with extra fuel tanks. The flight operation range was a constant concern for the military and that include improvements to planes.
The lockheed P38 lighting was commissioned in 1937 and was  used as a long range interceptor fighter to fly over the Pacific. I when it entered into service in 1941 the Lighting had a range of 700 km or 435 miles. The B29 super fortress was later introduced in 1944, it had a range of 4.500 Km or 2796 miles. it was capable of bombing japan from island aircraft bases. Much of the aviation technology during the wars filtered down to commercial planes which made long distance flight possible.
The emergence of the cold war brought about the plans to commission a long range bomber to reach the heart of Russia. The idea to have a bomber with an unlimited amount of energy to fly possibly on long standby duties to circle around in case of nuclear threat.
General Cirtis LeMay headed a program called N.E.P.A The Nuclear Energy Propulsion of Aircraft in 1946. This was a program to oversee the possibility of designing and building a nuclear powered bomber. Progress was slow, NEPA was replaced by the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) program in May 1951. The ANP program included provisions for studying two different types of nuclear-powered jet engines, General Electric's Direct Air Cycle and Pratt & Whitney's Indirect Air Cycle. ANP also contained plans for two B-36s to be modified by Convair under the MX-1589 project, one of the B-36s was to be used to study shielding requirements for an airborne reactor while the other was to be the X-6. The program was cancelled before the X-6 was completed, however. The first operation of an aircraft engine on nuclear power was achieved on January 31, 1956 using a modified General Electric J47 turbojet engine. The Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program was terminated following the President's annual budget message to Congress in 1961.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory conducted research (Aircraft Reactor Experiment) to produce a nuclear powered aircraft. Two General Electric turbofan engines were successfully powered to nearly full thrust using two shielded reactors. The two engines complete with reactor system are currently located at the EBR-1 facility south of the Idaho National Laboratory. The U.S. designed these engines to be used in a new specially designed nuclear bomber, the WS-125, which was eventually terminated by Eisenhower who cut NEPA and told Congress that there was no urgency for the program. Eisenhower did back a small scale program developing high temperature materials and high performance reactors. That program was terminated early in the Kennedy administration.
In 1957, the Air Force and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission contracted with the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory to study the feasibility of applying heat from nuclear reactors to ramjet engines. This research became known as Project Pluto. The engines being developed under this program were intended to power an unmanned cruise missile, called SLAM, for Supersonic Low Altitude Missile. The program succeeded in producing two test engines which were operated on the ground. On May 14, 1961, the world's first nuclear ramjet engine, "Tory-IIA," mounted on a railroad car, roared to life for just a few seconds. On July 1, 1964, seven years and six months after it was born, "Project Pluto" was cancelled.

The Soviet program of developing nuclear aircraft resulted in the experimental Tupolev Tu-119, also known as the Tu-95LAL (LAL- Летающая Атомная Лаборатория- Flying Nuclear Laboratory). It was based on a Tupolev Tu-95 bomber. It had 4 conventional turboprop engines and an onboard nuclear reactor. The Tu-119 completed 34 research flights. Most of these were made with the reactor shut down.

The main purpose of the flight phase was examining the effectiveness of the radiation shielding which was one of the main concerns for the engineers. Massive amounts of protection used resulted in radiation levels low enough to consider continuing development. But, as in the US, development never continued past this point. The obvious potential of the ICBM made the expensive program superfluous, and around the mid 1960s it was cancelled.

The near threat of nuclear war brought about changes in using nuclear powered vehicles. Since the nuclear test ban treaty signed by Kennedy and Khrushchev, no advancement has ben made for Atomic airplanes. Yet nuclear powered submarines and aircraft-carriers are still thriving today. Advances in technology, material science and production could potentially reboot the idea of nuclear powered flight. Especially when fossil fuels runs out and jet engines will become useless relics. The need for alternative power maybe on the horizon, though the use of heavy lead shielding have proven to be difficult on aircraft. I mentioned before how electrical power could power the next generation of Ion engines for high speed space travel, this idea of atomic aviation seems like a natural stepping stone for greater things...

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