NASA has announced plans to test a nuclear thermal rocket that could carry astronauts to Mars in record time.
Using current technology, the space agency says a 300-mile trip to Mars would take about seven months.
Engineers do not yet know how much time could be reduced by using nuclear technology. However, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said that “astronauts can travel to and from deep space faster than ever.”
“This is a major opportunity to prepare for manned missions to Mars,” said Nelson.
NASA announced Tuesday that it will conduct a demonstration of its new spacecraft in Earth orbit in 2027. It is part of a joint project with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the research and development arm of the US military.
Nuclear-electric propulsion systems are up to three times more efficient than currently used chemical rockets. The technician uses the reactor core to generate electricity that positively charges gaseous propellants such as xenon or krypton, pushing the ions through the thruster which propels the rocket forward.
The resulting low-thrust acceleration that is produced by this process is sustained for a longer period of time compared to the high-thrust generated by chemically propelled engines. In addition to reducing the transit time of crewed spacecraft, nuclear thermal engines are also safer, can carry larger payloads, and generate more power for instrumentation and communications, NASA said.
Instead of using highly enriched uranium, the project will rely on high-enriched, low-enriched uranium fuel to avoid logistical hurdles, Darpa said.
NASA’s ultimate goal is to use nuclear engines to accelerate space exploration missions, including missions to Mars. Last year, it tested a powerful new rocket as part of the Artemis program to return humans to the moon and serve as the starting point for a journey to the Red Planet.
Under the new project, Darpa will design an experimental spacecraft and manage the entire program, known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations or Draco. NASA will collaborate to assemble the nuclear engine en route to a demonstrator in 2027.
“We will conduct several experiments with the reactor at various power levels in space, sending the results back to operators on Earth before we test the full-power rocket motor remotely,” said Dr. Tabitha Dodson, Darpa program manager at Draco. “These tests will inform the approach to future exploitation [nuclear thermal rocket] engines in space.
NASA is also working with the Department of Energy to develop advanced space-based nuclear technologies, including three concepts for a nuclear power plant that could be tested on the lunar surface by 2030. Earlier, NASA said nuclear fission energy could provide power continuity regardless of location. available sunlight and other natural environmental conditions. It was noted that the demonstration of the systems would pave the way for long-term missions to Mars.
It’s been more than 50 years since NASA last tested nuclear thermal technology. A major program began in the 1960s under the banner of the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application. However, this was later dropped due to lack of funding before any test flights took place.
“Recent advances in materials and aerospace engineering usher in a new era of space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement in establishing space transportation capabilities for the Earth-Moon economy,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said .