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Ablation Study of Tungsten-Based Nuclear Thermal Rocket Fuel Open Access

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The research described in this thesis has been performed in order to support the materials research and development efforts of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), of Tungsten-based Nuclear Thermal Rocket (NTR) fuel. The NTR was developed to a point of flight readiness nearly six decades ago and has been undergoing gradual modification and upgrading since then. Due to the simplicity in design of the NTR, and also in the modernization of the materials fabrication processes of nuclear fuel since the 1960's, the fuel of the NTR has been upgraded continuously. Tungsten-based fuel is of great interest to the NTR community, seeking to determine its advantages over the Carbide-based fuel of the previous NTR programs. The materials development and fabrication process contains failure testing, which is currently being conducted at MSFC in the form of heating the material externally and internally to replicate operation within the nuclear reactor of the NTR, such as with hot gas and RF coils. In order to expand on these efforts, experiments and computational studies of Tungsten and a Tungsten Zirconium Oxide sample provided by NASA have been conducted for this dissertation within a plasma arc-jet, meant to induce ablation on the material. Mathematical analysis was also conducted, for purposes of verifying experiments and making predictions. The computational method utilizes Anisimov's kinetic method of plasma ablation, including a thermal conduction parameter from the Chapman Enskog expansion of the Maxwell Boltzmann equations, and has been modified to include a tangential velocity component. Experimental data matches that of the computational data, in which plasma ablation at an angle shows nearly half the ablation of plasma ablation at no angle. Fuel failure analysis of two NASA samples post-testing was conducted, and suggestions have been made for future materials fabrication processes. These studies, including the computational kinetic model at an angle and the ablation of the NASA sample, could be applied to an atmospheric reentry body, reentering at a ballistic trajectory at hypersonic velocities.

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