NASA has unveiled plans to test nuclear-powered rockets that will transport astronauts to Mars in super-fast time.
The agency has partnered with the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to demonstrate a thermonuclear rocket engine in space as soon as 2027, it announced Tuesday.
The project aims to develop a pioneering propulsion system for space travel that differs greatly from the chemical systems prevailing since the modern age of rockets that dawned nearly a century ago.
“Using a thermonuclear rocket allows for a faster transit time, and reduces risks to astronauts,” NASA said in a press release.
“Reducing transit time is a key component of human missions to Mars, as longer journeys require more supplies and more powerful systems.”
Additional benefits include increased science payload capacity, increased instrumentation and communications capability, according to the agency.
NASA, which successfully tested its new-age Artemis spacecraft last year as a staging post for a return to the Moon and back to Mars, hopes to land humans on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s as part of its Moon to Mars program.
NASA says that with current technology, a 300-mile trip to Mars would take about seven months. Engineers don’t yet know how much time can be shortened using nuclear technology, but NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said it would allow spacecraft and humans to travel deep space at record speed.
“With the help of this new technology, astronauts can travel to and from deep space faster than ever before—a great ability to prepare for manned missions to Mars,” said Nelson.
The agency says nuclear electric propulsion systems use a propellant much more efficiently than chemical missiles, but provide a reduced amount of thrust.
The reactor generates electricity that positively charges gaseous fuels such as xenon or krypton, forcing the ions out through the thruster, which propels the spacecraft forward.
Using low thrust efficiently, nuclear electric propulsion systems accelerate spacecraft for long periods and could propel a Mars mission for a fraction of the propellant for higher thrust systems.
In a statement, DARPA Administrator Dr. Stephanie Tompkins said the agreement was an extension of existing collaboration between the agencies.
“DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration in developing technologies to achieve our own goals, from the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the moon for the first time to servicing robots and refueling satellites,” she said.
The space field is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security. The ability to make leaps and bounds in space technology…will be essential to more efficiently and quickly move materials 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 the following year, will land astronauts, including the first woman, on the lunar surface for the first time. once since 1972.
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