Project Pluto

Project Pluto

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Project Pluto was a United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 government program to develop nuclear power
Nuclear power
Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provide about 6% of the world's energy and 13–14% of the world's electricity, with the U.S., France, and Japan together accounting for about 50% of nuclear generated electricity...

ed ramjet
Ramjet
A ramjet, sometimes referred to as a stovepipe jet, or an athodyd, is a form of airbreathing jet engine using the engine's forward motion to compress incoming air, without a rotary compressor. Ramjets cannot produce thrust at zero airspeed and thus cannot move an aircraft from a standstill...

 engines for use in cruise missile
Cruise missile
A cruise missile is a guided missile that carries an explosive payload and is propelled, usually by a jet engine, towards a land-based or sea-based target. Cruise missiles are designed to deliver a large warhead over long distances with high accuracy...

s. Two experimental engines were tested at the United States Department of Energy
United States Department of Energy
The United States Department of Energy is a Cabinet-level department of the United States government concerned with the United States' policies regarding energy and safety in handling nuclear material...

 Nevada Test Site
Nevada Test Site
The Nevada National Security Site , previously the Nevada Test Site , is a United States Department of Energy reservation located in southeastern Nye County, Nevada, about northwest of the city of Las Vegas...

 (NTS) in 1961 and 1964.

History


On January 1, 1957, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission
United States Atomic Energy Commission
The United States Atomic Energy Commission was an agency of the United States government established after World War II by Congress to foster and control the peace time development of atomic science and technology. President Harry S...

 selected the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory , just outside Livermore, California, is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center founded by the University of California in 1952...

's (LLNL) predecessor, the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, to study the feasibility of applying heat from nuclear reactor
Nuclear reactor
A nuclear reactor is a device to initiate and control a sustained nuclear chain reaction. Most commonly they are used for generating electricity and for the propulsion of ships. Usually heat from nuclear fission is passed to a working fluid , which runs through turbines that power either ship's...

s to ramjet
Ramjet
A ramjet, sometimes referred to as a stovepipe jet, or an athodyd, is a form of airbreathing jet engine using the engine's forward motion to compress incoming air, without a rotary compressor. Ramjets cannot produce thrust at zero airspeed and thus cannot move an aircraft from a standstill...

 engines. This research became known as "Project Pluto". The work was directed by Dr. Ted Merkle, leader of the laboratory's R-Division.


Originally carried out at Livermore, California
Livermore, California
Livermore is a city in Alameda County. The population as of 2010 was 80,968. Livermore is located on the eastern edge of California's San Francisco Bay Area....

, the work was moved to new facilities constructed for $1.2 million on 8 square miles (20.7 km²) of Jackass Flats at the NTS, known as Site 401. The complex consisted of 6 miles (10 km) of roads, critical assembly building, control building, assembly and shop buildings, and utilities. Also required for the construction was 25 miles (40.2 km) of oil well casing which was necessary to store the approximately 1000000 pounds (453,592.4 kg) of pressurized air used to simulate ramjet flight conditions for Pluto.

The principle behind the nuclear ramjet was relatively simple: motion of the vehicle pushed air in through the front of the vehicle (ram effect), a nuclear reactor heated the air, and then the hot air expanded at high speed out through a nozzle at the back, providing thrust.

The notion of using a nuclear reactor to heat the air was fundamentally new. Unlike commercial reactors, which are surrounded by concrete, the Pluto reactor had to be small and compact enough to fly, but durable enough to survive a 7000 miles (11,265.4 km) trip to a potential target. The nuclear engine could, in principle, operate for months, so a Pluto cruise missile could be left airborne for a prolonged time before being directed to carry out its attack.

The success of this project would depend upon a series of technological advances in metallurgy
Metallurgy
Metallurgy is a domain of materials science that studies the physical and chemical behavior of metallic elements, their intermetallic compounds, and their mixtures, which are called alloys. It is also the technology of metals: the way in which science is applied to their practical use...

 and materials science
Materials science
Materials science is an interdisciplinary field applying the properties of matter to various areas of science and engineering. This scientific field investigates the relationship between the structure of materials at atomic or molecular scales and their macroscopic properties. It incorporates...

. Pneumatic motor
Pneumatic motor
A pneumatic motor or compressed air engine is a type of motor which does mechanical work by expanding compressed air. Pneumatic motors generally convert the compressed air to mechanical work through either linear or rotary motion...

s necessary to control the reactor in flight had to operate while red-hot and in the presence of intense radiation
Ionizing radiation
Ionizing radiation is radiation composed of particles that individually have sufficient energy to remove an electron from an atom or molecule. This ionization produces free radicals, which are atoms or molecules containing unpaired electrons...

. The need to maintain supersonic
Supersonic
Supersonic speed is a rate of travel of an object that exceeds the speed of sound . For objects traveling in dry air of a temperature of 20 °C this speed is approximately 343 m/s, 1,125 ft/s, 768 mph or 1,235 km/h. Speeds greater than five times the speed of sound are often...

 speed at low altitude and in all kinds of weather meant the reactor, code named "Tory", had to survive high temperatures and conditions that would melt the metals used in most jet
Jet engine
A jet engine is a reaction engine that discharges a fast moving jet to generate thrust by jet propulsion and in accordance with Newton's laws of motion. This broad definition of jet engines includes turbojets, turbofans, rockets, ramjets, pulse jets...

 and rocket
Rocket
A rocket is a missile, spacecraft, aircraft or other vehicle which obtains thrust from a rocket engine. In all rockets, the exhaust is formed entirely from propellants carried within the rocket before use. Rocket engines work by action and reaction...

 engines. Ceramic
Ceramic
A ceramic is an inorganic, nonmetallic solid prepared by the action of heat and subsequent cooling. Ceramic materials may have a crystalline or partly crystalline structure, or may be amorphous...

 fuel elements would have to be used; the contract to manufacture the 500,000 pencil-sized elements was given to the Coors Porcelain Company.

The proposed use for nuclear-powered ramjets would be to power a cruise missile
Cruise missile
A cruise missile is a guided missile that carries an explosive payload and is propelled, usually by a jet engine, towards a land-based or sea-based target. Cruise missiles are designed to deliver a large warhead over long distances with high accuracy...

, called SLAM, for Supersonic Low Altitude Missile
Supersonic Low Altitude Missile
The Supersonic Low Altitude Missile or SLAM was a canceled U.S. Air Force project conceived around 1955...

. In order to reach ramjet speed, it would be launched from the ground by a cluster of conventional rocket boosters. Once it reached cruising altitude and was far away from populated areas the nuclear reactor would be turned on. Since nuclear power gave it almost unlimited range, the missile could cruise in circles over the ocean until ordered 'down to the deck' for its supersonic dash to targets in the Soviet Union. The SLAM as proposed would carry a payload of many nuclear weapons to be dropped on multiple targets, making the cruise missile into an unmanned bomber.

On May 14, 1961, the world's first nuclear ramjet engine, "Tory-IIA," mounted on a railroad car, roared to life for a few seconds. Three years later, "Tory-IIC" was run for five minutes at full power. Despite these and other successful tests the Pentagon
The Pentagon
The Pentagon is the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, located in Arlington County, Virginia. As a symbol of the U.S. military, "the Pentagon" is often used metonymically to refer to the Department of Defense rather than the building itself.Designed by the American architect...

, sponsor of the "Pluto project," had second thoughts. The weapon was considered "too provocative", and it was believed that it would compel the USSR to construct a similar device against which there was no known defense. Intercontinental ballistic missile
Intercontinental ballistic missile
An intercontinental ballistic missile is a ballistic missile with a long range typically designed for nuclear weapons delivery...

 technology had proven to be more easily developed than previously thought, reducing the need for such highly capable cruise missiles. On July 1, 1964, seven years and six months after it was started, "Project Pluto" was canceled.

See also

  • Nuclear thermal rocket
    Nuclear thermal rocket
    In a nuclear thermal rocket a working fluid, usually liquid hydrogen, is heated to a high temperature in a nuclear reactor, and then expands through a rocket nozzle to create thrust. In this kind of thermal rocket, the nuclear reactor's energy replaces the chemical energy of the propellant's...

    • NERVA
      NERVA
      NERVA is an acronym for Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application, a joint program of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and NASA managed by the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office until both the program and the office ended at the end of 1972....

  • Project Orion
    Project Orion (nuclear propulsion)
    Project Orion was a study of a spacecraft intended to be directly propelled by a series of explosions of atomic bombs behind the craft...

  • Project Rover
    Project Rover
    Project Rover was an American project to develop a nuclear thermal rocket. The program ran at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory from 1955 through 1972 and involved the Atomic Energy Commission, and NASA. The project was managed by the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office.Nuclear reactors for the...

  • Convair B-36
    Convair B-36
    The Convair B-36 "Peacemaker" was a strategic bomber built by Convair and operated solely by the United States Air Force from 1949 to 1959. The B-36 was the largest mass-produced piston engine aircraft ever made. It had the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft ever built , although there have...

     (the "Experiments" section)
  • Nuclear aircraft
    Nuclear aircraft
    A nuclear aircraft is an aircraft powered by nuclear energy. Research into them was pursued during the Cold War by the United States and the Soviet Union as they would presumably allow a country to keep nuclear bombers in the air for extremely long periods of time, a useful tactic for nuclear...

  • Convair X-6
    Convair X-6
    -See also:*Project Pluto*Project Rover*NERVA*WS-125Comparable aircraft* Tupolev Tu-119-External links:* original published on Aviation History, March 1995.* Section devoted to NB-36H...

  • WS-125
    WS-125
    The WS-125 was a proposed super long range bomber, designed by the United States during the cold war. It was supposed to be a nuclear aircraft and was scheduled to be named as B-72....


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