Nuclear-powered rockets that could transport astronauts to Mars in an instant have been proposed for testing by NASA. The organisation announced on Tuesday that it has teamed up with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) of the US government to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space as early as 2027.
The goal of the project is to create an innovative propulsion system for space travel that is very different from the chemical systems that have been used since the dawn of the modern era of rocketry almost a century ago.
According to a press release from NASA, “using a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transit time, reducing risk for astronauts.” For human missions to Mars, cutting down on transit time is essential because longer trips call for more supplies and more durable equipment.
According to the agency, additional advantages include increased science payload capacity and higher instrumentation and communication power. As part of its Moon to Mars programme, NASA hopes to set foot on Mars in the 2030s after successfully testing its modern Artemis spacecraft last year as a launchpad back to the moon and onto the planet.
According to Nasa, the 300-mile trip to Mars would take around seven months using current technology. Although Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, said nuclear technology would enable spacecraft and humans to travel in deep space at record speed, engineers do not yet know how much time could be saved.
The ability to travel to and from deep space more quickly than ever thanks to this new technology will be crucial for preparing for crewed missions to Mars, according to Nelson.
According to the agency, nuclear electric propulsion systems have a low thrust but use propellants much more effectively than chemical rockets.
A reactor produces the electricity that positively charges xenon or krypton-based gas propellants, forcing the ions through a thruster to propel the spacecraft forward.
Nuclear electric propulsion systems can accelerate spacecraft for long periods of time while using low thrust, and they can launch a Mars mission with a fraction of the fuel required by high-thrust systems. Darpa’s director, Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, said in a statement that the agreement was an expansion of the agencies’ current cooperation.
According to her, “Darpa and Nasa have a long history of successful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective goals, from the Saturn V rocket that launched the first humans to the moon to robotic satellite maintenance and refuelling.”
“National security, scientific research, and modern commerce all depend on the space domain. In order to transport cargo to the moon and eventually people to Mars more quickly and efficiently, it will be necessary to make quantum leaps in space technology.
The Artemis 2 mission from NASA will send people around the moon for the first time in over fifty years in 2024. For the first time since 1972, astronauts, including the first woman, will touch down on the surface of the moon during the upcoming Artemis 3 mission, which could happen the following year.