NASA wants to send a nuclear-powered rocket into space within five years. In this way, it will be possible in the future to allow people to travel to Mars faster than is currently possible with current rocket technology, which primarily uses liquid-fuel engines.
For nuclear missile propulsion, the space agency will collaborate with the US military research group DARPA, which has been working on a nuclear fission-based engine for some time. “This new technology will allow astronauts to travel to remote locations in space faster than ever before, an important capability in preparing for manned missions to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, announcing the intent at a conference in Maryland.
Conventional liquid-fueled rocket engines—often hydrogen—run for a limited time, until they run out of fuel. Nuclear-powered rocket engines can last longer with the same amount of fuel, giving spacecraft more speed.
In such a nuclear thermonuclear missile (NTR), liquid hydrogen is heated in a small nuclear reactor and expelled as a gas under high pressure, creating thrust. This process is twice as efficient as a conventional rocket engine in terms of fuel consumption.
Nuclear propulsion had already been experimented with in the 1960s with Project Nerva. The NTR engine has been successfully tested several times at on-the-ground test facilities. NASA drew up plans for the NERVA mission to Mars, but budget cuts ended the program in 1973.
NASA is now planning to send humans to Mars again. The Artemis lunar program aims to be a “stepping stone” to the Red Planet. According to space engineers, nuclear propulsion can significantly shorten the flight: from nine months to four.
However, the use of radioactive processes in space is not without controversy. Over the years, environmentalists have repeatedly protested against planetary explorers using radioactive materials to generate energy.
For the new project, NASA joins the military institute DARPA, which has been working since 2022 on a new NTR engine under the name DRACO. The plan is for the nuclear-powered rocket to make its first space flight by 2027 at the latest. $110 million has been earmarked for development this year, but hundreds of millions more are expected to be needed by 2027.
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