NASA is revisiting an old idea of getting humans to Mars. It is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to test a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space with the aim of using the technology for manned missions to the red planet. The agencies hope to “demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as early as 2027,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “Using this new technology, astronauts have been able to travel to and from deep space faster than ever before — an important opportunity to prepare for manned missions to Mars.”
Under the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will lead the technical development of the engine, which will be integrated with an experimental spacecraft from DARPA. NASA says nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) could allow spacecraft to travel faster, reducing the need for supplies to carry out a long mission. An NTD engine can also free up space for more scientific equipment and extra power for instrumentation and communications.
As early as the 1940s, scientists began speculating about the possibility of using nuclear energy for space flight. The US has been conducting ground experiments on that front since the 1950s. Budget cuts and changing priorities (such as a focus on the Space Shuttle program) led NASA to abandon the project in late 1972 before conducting any test flights.
There are, of course, risks associated with NTP engines, such as the possible spread of radioactive material into the environment if a malfunction occurs in the atmosphere or orbit. Nevertheless, NASA says the faster transit times NTP engines allow could reduce the risk to astronauts — they could cut the travel time to Mars by as much as a quarter. Nuclear thermal rockets could be at least three times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion methods.
NASA is also exploring nuclear power to enable related space exploration efforts. In 2018, it conducted tests with a portable nuclear reactor as part of efforts to develop a system that could power a Martian habitat. Last year, NASA and the Department of Energy selected three contractors to design a fission surface energy system that it can test on the moon. DARPA and the Department of Defense have been working on other NTP engine projects in recent years.
Meanwhile, the US has just approved a small modular nuclear design for the first time. As Gizmodo reports, the design allows for a nuclear facility about one-third the size of a standard reactor. Each module can produce approximately 50 megawatts of power. The design, from a company called NuScale, could reduce the cost and complexity of building nuclear power plants.
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