NASA to test nuclear rocket engine for possible Mars missions

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A nuclear thermal rocket engine in development could one day carry humans to Mars.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research arm of the US Department of Defense, and NASA are targeting a type of rocket engine that could be the holy grail for getting humans to the Red Planet quickly and safely. The first tests could take place as early as 2027, according to a statement released by the space agency on Tuesday.

“DARPA and NASA have a long history of successful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective purposes, from the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon for the first time, to robotic servicing and refueling. satellite fuel,” said DARPA Director Dr. Stefanie Tompkins. in a report. “The space domain is essential to modern commerce, scientific discovery and national security.”

The US military and NASA sought to develop this type of technology in the mid-20th century, but the program stalled. Now the initiative is gaining traction in the modern age as the Demonstration Rocket Program for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO.

Research into nuclear thermal rocket engines by NASA began in 1959. A key program in the 1960s, called Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application, even sought to demonstrate the technology in space – but it didn’t. never succeeded.

“NERVA funding, however, dwindled in the late 1960s and the program was canceled in 1973 before any flight testing of the engine had taken place,” according to the space agency’s website.

These days, NASA has renewed its interest in sending humans to the red planet. The space agency’s Artemis program, which made its first uncrewed test flight to the moon last year, directs the space agency to return humans to the lunar surface as a stepping stone to possibly put the first humans on Mars.

“Recent advances in aerospace materials and engineering are enabling a new era for space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement toward establishing space-lift capability for an Earth-Moon economy.” , said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s space technology mission. Direction, said in a statement.

As its name suggests, a nuclear heat engine would rely on a nuclear reactor, using a process called atomic fission – in which a neutron slams into an atom to tear it apart, setting off a powerful chain reaction – to heat the propellant and provide the thrust needed to propel a rocket into space. (The nuclear fission process is best known in the public consciousness for its role in energy production, and NASA previously signed an agreement with the US Department of Energy to research its applications for space travel.)

This process, according to NASA, is at least three times more efficient than the chemical propulsion used by rockets currently in service, in which explosive fuel is mixed with an oxidizer to create fiery thrust. The more efficient nuclear process, NASA said, could allow spacecraft to travel the average 140 million mile (225 million km) distance between Earth and Mars much faster than is possible today. , dramatically reducing the time astronauts are exposed to dangerous levels of radiation during future deep space missions.

As part of the deal with DARPA — which is perhaps best known for its role in laying the groundwork for the internet — NASA will lead the technology development of the new engine. DARPA will design an experimental spacecraft and lead the entire program, according to the contract.

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