Nasa has announced plans to test a nuclear thermal rocket that could transport 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 can be reduced using nuclear technology. But NASA administrator Bill Nelson said that “astronauts can travel to and from deep space faster than ever before.”
“This is a great capability to prepare for crewed Mars missions,” Nelson said.
NASA announced on Tuesday that it will perform a demonstration of its new ship in Earth orbit in 2027. This 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 chemical rockets currently in use. The technology uses a core reactor to generate electricity that positively charges gas thrusters such as xenon or krypton, pushing the ions out through a propellant that propels the rocket forward.
The resulting low thrust acceleration generated by this process lasts for longer periods of time compared to the high thrust produced by chemical propulsion engines. In addition to increasing transit times for crewed spacecraft, Nasa said nuclear thermal engines are safer, can carry larger payloads, and generate more power for instrumentation and communications.
Darpa said that instead of using highly enriched uranium, the project will rely on high analysis, low enriched uranium fuel to avoid logistical barriers.
Nasa’s ultimate goal is to use nuclear engines to accelerate deep space exploration missions, including to Mars. It tested a powerful new rocket last year as part of the Artemis program, designed to return humans to the moon and serve as a jumping off point for journeys to the Red Planet.
As part of the new project, Darpa will design an experimental spacecraft and lead the overall program known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or Draco. Nasa will collaborate on the assembly of the nuclear engine on the way to the 2027 demo.
“While in space, we will run several experiments with the reactor at various power levels and will send the results back to operators on Earth before we can conduct the full-power rocket engine test remotely,” said Dr Tabitha Dodson, Darpa’s program manager for Draco. “These tests will inform the approach for future operations. [nuclear thermal rocket] engines in space.”
Nasa is also working with the Department of Energy to develop advanced space nuclear technologies, including three concepts for a nuclear power plant that could be tested on the lunar surface by 2030. NASA has previously said that nuclear fission energy can provide sustained energy regardless of location. , available sunlight and other natural environmental conditions. It is stated that a demonstration of the systems will pave the way for long-term missions to Mars.
More than 50 years have passed since NASA last tested nuclear thermal technology. A major program was launched in the 1960s under the banner of the Rocket Vehicle Application for the Nuclear Engine. However, this was later shelved due to lack of funding before any test flights could take place.
“Recent aeronautical materials and engineering advances are enabling a new era for space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement towards building a space transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy,” said Jim Reuter, NASA’s deputy director of the Space Technology Mission. said. management, he said.