NASA will test nuclear propulsion in space to travel faster to Mars
NASA wants to send a nuclear-powered rocket into space within five years. In this way, it should be possible in the future to get people to Mars faster than is currently possible with current rocket technology, which primarily uses liquid-fuel engines.
For nuclear rocket propulsion, the space agency will collaborate with the US military research group DARPA, which has been working on a nuclear fission-based engine for some time. “This new technology will allow astronauts to get to remote places in space faster than ever before, an important capability in preparation for manned missions to Mars,” NASA Director Bill Nelson said, announcing his intention. at a conference in Maryland.
Conventional liquid-fueled rocket engines – often hydrogen – run for a limited time, until the fuel runs out. Nuclear-powered rocket engines can last longer on the same amount of fuel, giving the spacecraft more speed.
In such a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR), liquid hydrogen is heated in a small nuclear reactor and expelled as a gas under high pressure, creating thrust. This process is approximately twice as efficient in terms of fuel consumption as that of a traditional rocket engine.
Nuclear propulsion was already experienced in the 1960s with the NERVA project. An NTR engine has been successfully tested several times at test facilities on Earth. NASA made plans for a NERVA-powered mission to Mars, but budget cuts ended the program in 1973.
NASA is now considering sending humans to Mars again. The Artemis lunar program is intended as a “springboard” to the red planet. According to space engineers, nuclear propulsion can significantly shorten the journey: from nine months to four.
However, the use of radioactive processes in space is not without controversy. Over the years, environmentalists have repeatedly protested against planetary explorers using radioactive materials to generate energy.
For the new project, NASA joins the DARPA military institute, which has been working on a new NTR drive since 2022 under the name DRACO. The plan is for the nuclear-powered rocket to make its first spaceflight by 2027 at the latest. $110 million has been earmarked for development this year, but hundreds of millions more are expected to be needed by 2027.
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