NASA: NUKES TO POWER SPACECRAFT

NASA: NUKES TO POWER SPACECRAFT Putting radioactive uranium aboard a spaceship may not seem like the most sensible move after Saturday's shuttle tragedy.But that's exactly what NASA plans to do. And experts in the space community are applauding the agency for the effort.NASA has earmarked $279 million for 2004 -- and $3 billion over the next five years -- for its nuclear efforts, collectively known as Project Prometheus. The centerpiece of the program: developing a nuclear-powered, electric engine that will put an unmanned probe in orbit around three of Jupiter's moons sometime after 2011.But Prometheus is more than a one-time exploratory effort, experts said. With its use of nuclear power, it is the critical first step in detailing the solar system's outer reaches -- and, eventually, in sending people to other planets."Nuclear power is essential to a long-range, committed space program," said Dr. Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society. "You can't do a thorough examination of the outer planets without it."My latest Wired News story has more on NASA's nuclear effort -- and why it's so crucial.

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