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Project Orion 

One of my most famous projects, the first ever animation (to my knowledge) of an Orion-drive spacecraft. Orion was devised in the 1950's, in a brief, strange period when there was much less (if any) stigma attached to nuclear bombs. The idea was to use the tremendous power of nukes to propel ships into space. This wouldn't just be a case of "single stage to orbit", it would be more like, "single stage to Saturn". A more detailed article on Orion can be found on my blog.

I re-rendered a short clip of this in HD. The original shows the bomb sending a rather languid flow of plasma toward the ship. In reality, the entire sequence from detonation to plasma hitting the pusher plate and re-expanding would be over in much less than a millisecond. Also, since this grew out of an undergraduate project, I wanted to illustrate the fact that most of the mass of the bomb can be directed toward the ship - it would not expand in a sphere.

Don't forget to also check out Deep Space Force, the unfinished militarised version, and Discovery Orion, a 2001 variant. Both of which have much more realistic depictions of the pulse cycle.

Text links take you to hi-res prints and renders available for purchase at StockTrek images.

Even using chemical rockets for launch, the ship is probably best launched from somewhere remote. To transport the multi-thousand tonnes of vehicle and boosters, a giant barge floats the whole shebang along a canal. That way, at least the assembly building doesn't get destroyed with every launch.

Launch pad

Although I didn't animate it (this would be a formidable challenge indeed), the original idea of Orion was to launch it directly from the ground (at least from a few hundred meters in the air to avoid detonating a nuke in contact with the pusher plate).

Direct ground launch

Orion in its natural habitat. In vacuum, nuclear explosions are far less dramatic. There'd be a bright, instantaneous flash, followed an imperceptibly small interval later by a flash on the pusher plate as the plasma is rapidly decelerated and shock-heated.

In flight

Mars would be an obvious destination. Although the trip might only take weeks, artifical gravity could be provided by rotating the ship. To avoid the crew getting dizzy, habitat modules could be extended on long booms (shown as much longer in the video, so that a full 1g could be provided without motion sickness).

Arrival at Mars

Having conquered Mars, the next destination would be the outer planets. Forget Jupiter by 2001, the team's goals were a staggeringly ambitious "Mars by 1965, Saturn by 1970". I'm fascinated by the idea of having fleets of spaceships exploring the dozens of worlds of the Solar System in the 1970's. Enceladus (a small moon of Saturn of which little was known at the time) was selected as a possible destination.

Enceladus 1970

 Martian orbit

Olympus Mons

 

Landing. Ah. This could be a problem. Most of the ship's orbital velocity could be reduced via the Orion drive, but what about aerobraking ? I have no idea if this is sensible or not, but here's what it might look like.

 Aerobraking

 

Crappy render but an interesting concept. To avoid radioactive particles from raining back down to Earth, the ship could be launched near the magnetic poles. How effective this would be (if even necessary at all, which I think it isn't) is disputed.

Polar launch site

My professors weren't happy with detonating so many nukes in the atmosphere. One solution is to boost, or loft, the ship above the atmosphere using chemical rockets. About 14 shuttle-style solid rocket booster would be sufficient to get the ship to 100 km altitude, well above the atmosphere. Note that this is NOT the same as launching it into orbit !! Getting it to a velocity able to reach a high altitude is MUCH easier than getting it to the far higher orbital velocities - that's where the nukes come in.

Launch configuration

 Air launch

The Coca-Cola company really did have involvement with Orion. Several thousand nukes have to be ejected at a VERY RELIABLE RATE, about once per second. If one gets jammed, failure could be catastrophic. Coca-cola vending machines won't level a city if a can gets jammed, but they are very reliable.

Spaceflight configuration

 

 Schematic

 

 

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