Russia will endeavour to become the world’s first nation to build a nuclear-powered spacecraft for interplanetary flights.

The Russian Government has allocated 500 million roubles ($17 million) in 2010 for designing a nuclear engine and a spacecraft for long space travel.

The draft design of the spacecraft is slated to be ready by 2012, while the actual model is expected to be developed by 2018. The total cost of the project is estimated at about $600 million.

“Nuclear engines for spaceships are a very promising area. Such engines are a must if flights to Mars and other planets are to be undertaken,” said Russia’s space agency Roskosmos chief Anatoly Perminov.

He said a Megawatt-class nuclear-electric propulsion system will be designed by the Keldysh Centre for rocket engines jointly with the Energiya space corporation.

Russia has a unique half-a-century experience in developing and operating n-power reactors in space. According to space engineering expert Yury Zaitsev, the Soviet Union launched a total of 32 spacecraft with small-capacity nuclear propulsion units in the 1970s and 1980s. By comparison, the United States had only one such craft with a nuclear-reactor launched in 1965.

Nuclear powered spacecraft are essential for space travels far from the sun, where getting power from solar energy becomes problematic, and to planets like Mars, where sandstorms often black out sunlight.

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