The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to launch a rocket using nuclear energy within four years at the earliest. It is expected that the period of deep space exploration, including Mars, can be drastically reduced by using such a nuclear-powered rocket.
NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced plans to jointly develop and demonstrate an advanced thermonuclear rocket engine. The goal is to launch a rocket with thermonuclear propulsion technology into lunar orbit within 2027 through cooperation between the two organizations.
NASA hopes that thermonuclear rockets will enable faster navigation while reducing risk to astronauts.
Reducing time is one of the most important factors for a manned Mars landing mission as more space travel time requires more supplies and more powerful systems to protect occupants from cosmic radiation.
Currently used rockets utilize a method of obtaining propulsion while heating fuel through an oxidizer and injecting gas generated in the process. On the other hand, thermonuclear rockets use the high heat generated in a nuclear fission reactor to heat the propellant, not the oxidizer, to obtain thrust.
NASA believes that nuclear thermal rockets, which use nuclear power to obtain propulsion, will be more than three times more efficient than conventional chemical fuel rockets. With current technology, it takes about 8 to 9 months to fly between Earth and Mars, but it is expected that it can be reduced to 3 months by using nuclear thermal rockets.
Under this agreement, NASA will develop nuclear heat engine technology to be mounted on DARPA’s experimental spacecraft, and DARPA will lead the overall plan, including rocket system design, and will even take charge of developing engines including nuclear reactors.
NASA had already attempted to develop a rocket using nuclear power more than 50 years ago, but it was stopped due to budget problems and Cold War problems at the time. However, with the recent manned lunar exploration plan through the Artemis project and the deep space exploration plan such as Mars after the lunar exploration, the development of thermonuclear rockets has resumed.
“With the help of this new technology, astronauts will be able to travel to deep space faster than ever before,” said NASA Director Bill Nelson.
“DARPA and NASA have a long history of technological collaborations, from the Saturn V rocket that took the first man to the moon, to robotic servicing and refueling of satellites,” said Stephanie Tompkins, director of DARPA. The rapid development will play an essential role in sending goods to the moon more quickly, and furthermore, sending humans to Mars.”