Key Takeaways:

  • Nuclear rockets could cut travel time to Mars from 7 months to 45 days.
  • NASA is partnering with DARPA and Lockheed Martin to develop and test this technology.
  • Nuclear thermal rockets are 2-3 times more efficient than traditional chemical rockets.
  • The first test launch will have the engine turned off until it reaches orbit.
  • This project revives research from the 1950s with new fuel and technology.

In an attempt to shorten the duration of a manned mission to Mars, NASA is taking drastic measures. According to the most recent plan, NASA will work with contractors to revive research on nuclear thermal technology that dates back 70 years and begin testing nuclear-powered rockets in space as early as 2027.

Lockheed Martin was hired by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the US Department of Defense to develop, construct, and test nuclear thermal rocket technology in order to make the journey to the Red Planet quicker and more efficient. In addition, the rocket is predicted to perform twice as efficiently as traditional chemical rockets, which burn fuel and an oxidizer.

“Working with DARPA and companies across the commercial space industry will enable us to accelerate the technology development we need to send humans to Mars,” Pam Melroy, NASA deputy administrator, says in a statement. “This demonstration will be a crucial step in meeting our Moon-to-Mars objectives for crew transportation into deep space.”

The roughly $500 million project will be led by Lockheed Martin in terms of spacecraft design, integration, and testing, while BWX Technologies will be in charge of designing and constructing the nuclear fission reactor that powers the engine.

Tabitha Dodson, DARPA program manager for the project, says in a statement that the DRACO project (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) “aims to give the nation leap-ahead propulsion capability.”

Similar to chemical propulsion, high thrust could be achieved by a nuclear thermal rocket, but it is up to three times more efficient. This implies that a nuclear-powered journey to Mars would only take 45 days, as opposed to the current minimum of seven months. Not only can you visit Mars in 45 days, but NASA is also searching for a reliable way to connect Earth to the Moon.

Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s lunar exploration campaign, said at a press conference that “we need changes in more efficient propulsion in order for our country, for our species, to further explore space,” according to the Washington Post. “Higher thrust propulsion is really, really important. And I think we’re on the cusp of that here.”

The United States started down the nuclear rocket path in the 1950s, but the idea was scraped during a 1970s budget cut. Building on that initial research, but with a new fuel option for reduced logistical obstacles, is the goal of the DRACO program. Using a high-assay, low-enriched uranium fuel, the fission-based reactor can split apart atoms, heat up liquid hydrogen, and shoot that high-temperature gas through an engine nozzle for the needed thrust.

A nuclear thermal rocket’s higher efficiency not only shortens the transit time but also lowers astronaut risks and requires less payload in the form of systems and supplies.

The requirement to heat the hydrogen to 4,400°F while simultaneously storing it at minus-420°F is one obstacle that has not yet been solved, according to Live Science. “This is a demonstration of the nuclear thermal rocket as much as it is of on-orbit cryogenic liquid hydrogen storage,” Dodson says.

For obvious safety reasons, the engine’s fission reactor will remain off during the anticipated test launch in 2027 until the rocket reaches its intended orbit. The test vessel will be launched into space using a vehicle provided by the U.S. Space Force.

The craft will travel a minimum of 435 miles and a maximum of 1,240 miles into space during the first DRACO test. Instead of making any planned maneuvers, it will let the vehicle’s reactor burn the new fuel while gathering information as it goes. With a planned two months of liquid hydrogen stored on the craft, crews may also test, according to Space News, the possibility of an in-space refueling.

“We’re going to put this together,” Shireman told reporters, according to Live Science, “we’re going to fly this demonstration, gather a bunch of great data and really, we believe, usher in a new age for the United States [and] humankind, to support our space exploration mission.”

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