NASA is resurrecting an old concept in order to send humans to Mars. It is collaborating with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to conduct space tests of a nuclear thermal rocket engine with the goal of using the technology for crewed missions to Mars.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson said The agencies hope to “demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027. With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever — a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars.”
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NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will lead technical development of the engine, which will be integrated with a DARPA experimental spacecraft under the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program.
According to NASA, nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) could allow spacecraft to travel faster, reducing the volume of supplies required to complete a long mission. An NTD engine could also free up space for more scientific equipment as well as provide additional power for instrumentation and communication.
Scientists began speculating about the use of nuclear energy to power spaceflight as early as the 1940s. Beginning in the 1950s, the United States conducted ground experiments in this area. Budget cuts and shifting priorities (such as a focus on the Space Shuttle program) forced NASA to abandon the project before any test flights could take place at the end of 1972.
Of course, there are risks associated with NTP engines, such as the possible release of radioactive material into the environment if a failure occurs in the atmosphere or orbit.
Nonetheless, NASA claims that the faster transit times enabled by NTP engines could reduce astronaut risk — they could cut travel times to Mars by up to a quarter. Nuclear thermal rockets have the potential to be three times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion methods.
NASA is also investigating nuclear energy to power space exploration efforts. It tested a portable nuclear reactor in 2018 as part of efforts to develop a system capable of powering a Mars habitat.
NASA and the Department of Energy selected three contractors last year to design a fission surface power system for testing on the Moon. DARPA and the Defense Department have collaborated on other NTP engine projects in recent years.
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Meanwhile, the United States has just approved for the first time a small modular nuclear design. According to Gizmodo, the design allows for a nuclear facility that is roughly one-third the size of a standard reactor.
Each module can generate approximately 50 megawatts of power. The design, developed by NuScale, has the potential to reduce the cost and complexity of building nuclear power plants.