NASA is returning to an old idea as it tries to get humans to Mars. It is collaborating with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to test a thermonuclear rocket engine in space with the goal of using the technology for manned missions to the Red Planet. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the agencies hope to “demonstrate advanced nuclear heat propulsion technology as early as 2027.” “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.”
Under the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will take the lead in technical development of the engine, which will be integrated with an experimental DARPA spacecraft. NASA says nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) could allow spacecraft to travel faster, which could reduce the amount of supplies needed for a long mission. The NTD engine can also make room for more scientific equipment and additional instrumentation and communications power.
Since the 1940s, scientists have begun to speculate about the possibility of using nuclear energy to power spaceflight. The United States conducted ground experiments on that front starting in the 1950s. Budget cuts and shifting priorities (such as focusing on the Space Shuttle program) led NASA to abandon the project at the end of 1972 before it had carried out any test flights.
There are, of course, risks associated with NTP engines, such as the possible dispersion of radioactive material into the environment in the event of an atmospheric or orbital failure. However, NASA says the faster transit times enabled by NTP engines could reduce risks to astronauts — they could reduce travel times to Mars by up to a quarter. Thermonuclear missiles can be at least three times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion methods.
NASA is also looking into nuclear power to support related space exploration efforts. In 2018, it conducted tests of a portable nuclear reactor as part of efforts to develop a system capable of powering a habitat on Mars. Last year, NASA and the Department of Energy selected three contractors to design a surface fission power system that could be tested on the moon. DARPA and the Department of Defense have worked on other NTP engine projects over the past few years.
Meanwhile, the United States has just approved a small, modular nuclear design for the first time. like gizmodo Reports, the design allows for a nuclear facility about one-third the size of a standard reactor. Each unit is capable of producing about 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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