A nuclear thermal rocket engine in development could one day transport humans to Mars.
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During a presentation on Tuesday, January 24, at the 2024 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech Forum and Exposition held in National Harbor, Maryland, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson gave an overview of the project. According to Nelson, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will collaborate with the agency to “establish and illustrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion, a groundbreaking technology that will allow the United States to broaden the opportunities for future human spaceflight missions.”
The NASA- DARPA Collaboration
According to DARPA director Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, “NASA and DARPA have a long history of synergistic relationship in improving technologies for our respective aims, from the Saturn V rocket that sent the first humans to the Moon through robotic servicing and refueling of satellites, to today’s modern economy, technological advancement, and national security, the space domain is essential.”
According to the deal with DARPA, which is most recognized for its part in creating the internet’s foundation, NASA will be in charge of the new engine’s technological development. DARPA will design an experimental spaceship and oversee the entire project.
Midway through the 20th century, the US military and NASA tried to build this kind of technology, but the effort failed. As the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program, the endeavor is currently receiving new momentum in the contemporary era.
NASA started investigating nuclear thermal rocket engines in 1959. Even attempting to showcase the technology in space, a significant initiative in the 1960s named Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application never materialized.
The space agency’s website states that “funding for NERVA, however, declined in the late 1960s and the program was discontinued in 1973 before any flight testing of the engine took place.”
NASA is now again seeking to send people to Mars. The Artemis program of the space agency, which last year made its first unmanned test journey to the moon, instructs the space agency to send people back to the lunar surface as a first step toward sending people to Mars.
According to Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, “recent aerospace equipment and technology breakthroughs are facilitating a revolutionary change for space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a massive accomplishment toward having established a space transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy.”
Can the nuclear thermal engine take us to Mars?
A nuclear thermal engine would depend on a nuclear reactor to heat propellant and produce the thrust required to launch a rocket into space.
According to NASA, this method is way more effective than the chemical propulsion utilized by the current generation of rockets, which involves combining an explosive fuel with an oxidizer to produce a blazing flame of thrust. According to NASA, the more effective nuclear process could make it much easier for spacecraft to travel the 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) radius between the Earth and Mars than it is currently possible. This would significantly reduction in the amount of time astronauts spend in potentially hazardous radiation environments during upcoming deep-space missions.
The demonstration, which is set for 2027 as part of an ongoing DARPA research program that NASA is now joining, may also provide insight into the goals of the U.S. Space Force, which has proposed launching nuclear reactor-powered spaceship efficacious of moving other satellites orbiting close to the moon.