NASA has unveiled plans to test nuclear-powered rockets that could fly astronauts to Mars in ultrafast time.
The agency is working with the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space starting in 2027, it announced Tuesday.
The project aims to develop a groundbreaking space propulsion system that is very different from the chemical systems that have been prevalent since the modern era of rocketry began nearly a century ago.
“Using a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transit time, reducing risk to astronauts,” NASA said in a press release.
“Reducing transit time is an important part of human missions to Mars, as longer journeys require more supplies and more robust systems.”
An additional benefit, according to the agency, would be a larger scientific payload and more power for instrumentation and communications.
NASA, which last year successfully tested its new-age Artemis spacecraft as a springboard back to the moon and on to Mars, hopes to land humans on the red planet sometime in the 2030s as part of its Moon to Mars mission. program.
Using current technology, NASA says, the 300-meter journey to Mars would take about seven months. Engineers don’t yet know how much time could be saved using nuclear technology, but Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, said it would enable spacecraft and humans to travel through deep space at record speed.
“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,” Nelson said.
Nuclear electric propulsion systems use propellant gases much more efficiently than chemical rockets, but provide a low amount of thrust, the agency says.
A reactor generates electricity that positively charges gas propellants such as xenon or krypton and pushes the ions out through a thruster, which propels the spacecraft forward.
By making efficient use of low thrust, nuclear electric propulsion systems accelerate spacecraft for extended periods of time and can propel a Mars mission for a fraction of the propellant of high thrust systems.
In a statement, Darpa’s director, Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, said the agreement was an extension of existing inter-agency cooperation.
“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,” she said.
“The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery and national security. The ability to make major advances in space technology… will be essential to more efficiently and quickly transport material to the Moon and eventually humans to Mars.”
NASA’s Artemis 2 mission, which will send humans around the moon for the first time in more than half a century, is scheduled for 2024. The subsequent Artemis 3 mission, which could come next year, will land astronauts, including the first woman, for the first time since 1972 on the lunar surface.