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Nuclear Powered Payloads

US-A (RORSAT) with Buk-reactor

Voyager 2 with RTG power sources[NASA]

Nuclear power sources were and are used on spacecraft, when solar arrays are insufficient in providing enough power, especially on deep space missions to the outer solar system and on high-power application like radar satellites.

Currently, three types of nuclear energy sources have been used in space applications:

  • Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG)
  • Nuclear reactors
  • Radioisotope Heating Units (RHU)

The missions, which required nuclear power sources, fell in following categories:

Nuclear propulsion has not yet be implemented, although ground tests of nuclear engines like the Nerva have been conducted. More likely is the future implementation of nuclear powered electric engines, as proposed for NASA's project Prometheus, which might propel a Jupiter Tour (JIMO - Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter) spacecraft to orbit several moons of Jupiter.

The main risk of nuclear powered missions is, that radioactivity could be released in the event of an accident or reentry. Several accidents happened, some causing severe radioactive pollution.

Complete Mission List:

Payload Date Launch Vehicle Suc Source Type Power Source Remarks
Transit 4A 29.06.1961 Thor-DM21 Able-Star P RTG SNAP-3B7
Transit 4B 13.11.1961 Thor-DM21 Able-Star RTG SNAP-3B8
Transit 5BN-1 28.09.1963 Thor-DSV2A Able-Star RTG SNAP-9A
Transit 5BN-2 05.12.1963 Thor-DSV2A Able-Star RTG SNAP-9A
Transit 5BN-3 21.04.1964 Thor-DSV2A Able-Star F RTG SNAP-9A Burned up during reentry
Snapshot 03.04.1965 Atlas-SLV3 Agena-D Reactor SNAP-10A
Kosmos 84 (Strela-1 #24) 03.09.1965 Kosmos-1 (65S3) RTG Orion-1
Kosmos 90 (Strela-1 #29) 18.09.1965 Kosmos-1 (65S3) RTG Orion-1
Nimbus B 18.05.1968 Thorad-SLV2G Agena-D F RTG 2 SNAP-19B2 Fell into ocean, recovered
Luna (15a) (Lunokhod (1)) 19.02.1969 Proton-K Blok-D F RHU V3-R70-4
Nimbus 3 14.04.1969 Thorad-SLV2G Agena-D RTG 2 SNAP-19B2
EASEP (LM 5, Apollo 11) 14.11.1969 Saturn-5 RHU ALRG-RHU
ALSEP A1 (LM 6, Apollo 12) 14.11.1969 Saturn-5 RTG SNAP-27
ALSEP B (LM 7, Apollo 13) 11.04.1970 Saturn-5 RTG SNAP-27 Fell into South Pacific
Kosmos 367 (US-A #1) 03.10.1970 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Luna 17 (Lunokhod 1) 10.11.1970 Proton-K Blok-D RHU V3-R70-4
ALSEP C (LM 8, Apollo 14) 31.01.1971 Saturn-5 RTG SNAP-27
Kosmos 402 (US-A #2) 01.04.1971 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
ALSEP A2 (LM 10, Apollo 15) 26.07.1971 Saturn-5 RTG SNAP-27
Kosmos 469 (US-A #3) 25.12.1971 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Pioneer 10 03.03.1972 Atlas-SLV3C Centaur-D Star-37E RTG 4 SNAP-19
ALSEP D (LM 11, Apollo 16) 16.04.1972 Saturn-5 RTG SNAP-27
Kosmos 516 (US-A #4) 21.08.1972 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Triad 1 (TIP 1) 02.09.1972 Scout-B1 RTG Transit-RTG
ALSEP E (LM 12, Apollo 17) 07.12.1972 Saturn-5 RTG SNAP-27
Luna 21 (Lunokhod 2) 08.01.1973 Proton-K Blok-D RHU V3-R70-4
Pioneer 11 06.04.1973 Atlas-SLV3D Centaur-D1A Star-37E RTG 4 SNAP-19
Kosmos (556) (US-A #5) 25.04.1973 Tsiklon-2 F Reactor Buk Fell into Pacific
Kosmos 626 (US-A #6) 27.12.1973 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 651 (US-A #7) 15.05.1974 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 654 (US-A #8) 17.05.1974 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 723 (US-A #9) 02.04.1975 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 724 (US-A #10) 07.04.1975 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Viking 1 Lander 20.08.1975 Titan-3E Centaur-D1T RTG 2 SNAP-19
Viking 2 Lander 09.09.1975 Titan-3E Centaur-D1T RTG 2 SNAP-19
Kosmos 785 (US-A #11) 12.12.1975 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
LES 8 15.03.1976 Titan-3(23)C RTG 2 MHW-RTG
LES 9 15.03.1976 Titan-3(23)C RTG 2 MHW-RTG
Kosmos 860 (US-A #12) 17.10.1976 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 861 (US-A #13) 21.10.1976 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Voyager 2 20.08.1977 Titan-3E Centaur-D1T [Star-37E] RTG 3 MHW-RTG
Voyager 1 05.09.1977 Titan-3E Centaur-D1T [Star-37E] RTG 3 MHW-RTG
Kosmos 952 (US-A #14) 16.09.1977 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 954 (US-A #15) 18.09.1977 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk Fell on Canada
Kosmos 1176 (US-A #16) 29.04.1980 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1249 (US-A #17) 05.03.1981 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1266 (US-A #18) 21.04.1981 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1299 (US-A #19) 24.08.1981 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1365 (US-A #20) 14.05.1982 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1372 (US-A #21) 01.06.1982 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1402 (US-A #22) 30.08.1982 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk Fell into Indian Ocean
Kosmos 1412 (US-A #23) 02.10.1982 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1579 (US-A #24) 29.06.1984 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1607 (US-A #25) 31.10.1984 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1670 (US-A #26) 01.08.1985 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1677 (US-A #27) 23.08.1985 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1736 (US-A #28) 21.03.1986 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1771 (US-A #29) 20.08.1986 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1818 (Plasma-A #1) 01.02.1987 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Topaz-1
Kosmos 1860 (US-A #30) 18.06.1987 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1867 (Plasma-A #2) 10.07.1987 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Topaz-1
Kosmos 1900 (US-A #31) 12.12.1987 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Kosmos 1932 (US-A #32) 14.03.1988 Tsiklon-2 Reactor Buk
Galileo 18.10.1989 Shuttle [IUS] RTG 2 GPHS-RTG
Ulysses 06.10.1990 Shuttle [IUS + PAM-S] RTG 1 GPHS-RTG
Mars 8 (Mars 96) 2 Lander, 2 Penetrators) 16.11.1996 Proton-K Blok-D-2 F RTG 4 RTG-Angel Fell on Bolivia (?)
Mars Pathfinder Rover 04.12.1996 Delta-7925 RHU LWRHU
Cassini 15.10.1997 Titan-401B Centaur-T RTG 3 GPHS-RTG
MER A Rover (Spirit) 10.06.2003 Delta-7925 RHU
MER B Rover (Opportunity) 08.07.2003 Delta-7925H RHU
New Horizons 19.01.2006 Atlas-5(551) [Star-48B] RTG
MSL Rover (Curiosity) 26.11.2011 Atlas-5(541) RTG
Chang'e 3 / Yutu 01.12.2013 CZ-3B/G3Z RTG, RHU
 
To be launched
Mars 2020 rover 2020 RTG

 

Failure List:

Mission Failure Failure Description Radioactivity
released

Transit 5BN-3

Launch failure

RTG burned up

Yes

Nimbus B

Launch failure

RTG recovered intact

No

LM 7 (Apollo 13)

Reentered

RTG undamaged, but lost. No radioactivity measured

No

Kosmos (556) (US-A #5)

Launch failure

Reactor burned up, radioactivity measured

Yes

Kosmos 954 (US-A #15)

Reentered

Reactor burned up over Canada, radioactive pollution on the ground

Yes

Kosmos 1402 (US-A #22)

Reentered

Reactor core burned up over South Atlantic

Yes

Mars 8 (Mars 96) 2 Lander, 2 Penetrators)

Launch failure

Unknown

Unknown