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A nuclear thermal rocket engine under development could one day take humans to Mars.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research division of the US Department of Defense, and NASA are looking at a type of rocket engine that could be the holy grail of getting people to the red planet quickly and safely. The first tests could take place as early as 2027, according to a Tuesday press release from the space agency.
“DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective goals, from the Saturn V rocket that first took humans to the moon, to robotic maintenance and satellite refueling,” said DARPA Director Dr. . Stephanie Tompkins. in a statement. “The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery and national security.”
The US military and NASA tried to develop this kind of technology in the mid-20th century, but the program stalled. Now the initiative is gaining new traction in modern times as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program.
Research into nuclear thermal rocket engines by NASA began in 1959. A major program in the 1960s called the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application even attempted to demonstrate the technology in space — but it never came to fruition.
“However, funding for NERVA dwindled in the late 1960s and the program was canceled in 1973 before any test flights of the engine took place,” according to the space agency’s website.
Today, NASA has renewed interest in sending humans to the red planet. The space agency’s Artemis program, which had its inaugural uncrewed test flight to the moon last year, is tasking the space agency with returning humans to the lunar surface as a stepping stone to eventually putting the first humans on Mars.
“Recent aerospace materials and technical advances enable a new era for nuclear space technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement toward establishing a space transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
As the name implies, a nuclear thermal engine would rely on a nuclear reactor, using a process called atomic fission – in which a neutron collides with an atom to tear it apart, causing a powerful chain reaction – to produce propellant to heat up and the thrust required to propel a rocket through space. (The fission process is better known in the public consciousness for its role in energy production, and NASA previously signed a deal with the U.S. Department of Energy to explore its spaceflight applications.)
That process, according to NASA, is three or more times more efficient than the chemical propulsion used by the rockets currently in use, which mixes an explosive fuel with an oxidizer to create fiery thrust. The more efficient nuclear process, NASA said, could enable spacecraft to travel the average 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) distance between Earth and Mars much faster than is possible today, significantly reducing the amount of time astronauts are exposed to. is shortened. dangerous levels of radiation on future deep-space missions.
Under the agreement with DARPA – which is perhaps best known for its role in laying the groundwork for the Internet – NASA will lead the technology development of the new engine. DARPA will design an experimental spacecraft and lead the overall program under the contract.