A Mars hopping vehicle propelled by a radioisotope thermal rocket: thermofluid design and materials selection

H. R. Williams, R. M. Ambrosi, N. P. Bannister

Abstract

Rocket-propelled vehicles capable of travelling a kilometre or more in a ballistic ‘hop’ with propellants acquired from the Martian atmosphere offer the potential for increased mobility and planetary science return compared with conventional rovers. In concept, a radioisotope heat source heats a core or ‘thermal capacitor’, which in turn heats propellant exhausted through a rocket nozzle to provide thrust. A systematic study of the thermodynamics, heat transfer and selection of core materials for a Mars hopper was undertaken. The aim was to advance the motor design and assess technical risks and feasibility. Analytical and numerical motor models were developed; the former to generate thermodynamic performance limits, an ideal hop distance and plot a materials selection chart using simple explicit relations. The numerical model assessed the effect of core configuration and geometry. A hop coefficient Chop is shown to characterize the effect of core geometry independently of core material and temperature. The target hop distance of 1 km is shown to be robust. A moderate advantage to pebble-bed cores over a core consisting of straight channels was suggested. High-performance engineering ceramics such as boron carbide offer the longest hop providing the core temperature can be increased significantly above 1200 K.

  • Received August 20, 2010.
  • Accepted October 11, 2010.
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