A nuclear lightbulb is a hypothetical type of spacecraft engine using a gaseous fission reactor to achieve nuclear propulsion. Specifically it would be a type of gas core reactor rocket that separates nuclear fuel from coolant/propellant with a quartz wall. It would be operated at such high temperature (approx. 25,000°C) that the vast majority of the electromagnetic emissions would be in the hard ultraviolet range. Fused silica is almost completely transparent to this light, so it would be used to contain the uranium hexafluoride and allow the light to heat reaction mass in a rocket or to generate electricity using a heat engine or photovoltaics.
This type of reactor shows great promise in both of these roles. As a rocket engine it, like all nuclear rocket designs, can greatly exceed the power density of a chemical rocket. However, it also does not involve the release of any radioactive material from the rocket, unlike open cycle designs which would cause nuclear fallout if used in a planetary atmosphere (e.g. Project Orion). As a method to generate electricity, nuclear lightbulbs are extremely efficient because higher-temperature heat contains more Gibbs free energy than the low-temperature heat produced in current fossil-fuel plants and water-cooled nuclear reactors. The theoretical specific impulse (Isp) range from 1500 to 3000 seconds.
- Clark, John S.; McDaniel, Patrick; Howe, Steven; Helms, Ira; Stanley, Marland (April 1993), Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Technology: Results of an Interagency Panel in 1991 (PDF), NASA Technical Memorandum (105711), NASA, pp. 38–9
- Latham, Thomas; Joyner II, Claude (September 1991), "Summary of nuclear light bulb development status", Conference on Advanced SEI Technologies, Cleveland, Ohio: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, doi:10.2514/6.1991-3512, AIAA 91-3512
- Latham, Thomas (October 1969). "Criticality studies of a nuclear light bulb engine". Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). 6 (10): 1148–1154. Bibcode:1969JSpRo...6.1148L. doi:10.2514/3.29778.