Man on Mars moves step closer to reality: NASA announces plans for a nuclear rocket that will slash seven-month travel time
The American space agency partnered with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program that will be tested in 2027.
A nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) offers a high thrust-to-weight ratio of around 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion and two-to-five times greater efficiency than in-space chemical propulsion.
The team plans to use previous NTR models to design DRACO, while providing it with a modern touch – the last technology tested on the ground was more than 50 years ago.
NASA and DARPA are working on a nuclear rocket that could take humans to Mars much faster – dramatically reducing the current seven-month journey
The space agency has studied the concept of nuclear thermal propulsion for decades.
This technology introduces heat from a nuclear fission reactor to a hydrogen propellant to provide a thrust believed to be far more efficient than traditional chemical-based rocket engines.
Along with faster transit, the groups said NTR would reduce the risk for astronauts because they will not be traveling through space as long.
That would substantially reduce the time astronauts would be exposed to deep-space radiation and require fewer supplies, such as food and other cargo, during a trip to Mars.
NASA is eyeing the late 2030s for when it will send humans to the Martian world.
‘If we have swifter trips for humans, they are safer trips,’ NASA deputy administrator and former astronaut Pam Melroy said Tuesday.
NTR transfers heat from the reactor directly to a gaseous hydrogen propellant.
Heated hydrogen expands through a nozzle to provide thrust to propel a spacecraft.
And materials inside the fission reactor must be able to survive temperatures above 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA has had NTR on its radar for more than 60 years and first embarked on the mission in 1961.
This led the then-NASA Marshall Space Flight Center director and rocket pioneer, Wernher von Braun, to advocate for a proposed mission, dispatching a dozen crew members to Mars aboard two rockets.
Each rocket would be propelled by three Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) engines – designs drafted in 1961.
As detailed by von Braun, that expeditionary crew would launch to the Red Planet in November 1981 and land on that distant world in August 1982.
In presenting his visionary plan in August 1969 to a Space Task Group, von Braun explained that ‘although the undertaking of this mission will be a great national challenge, it represents no greater challenge than the commitment made in 1961 to land a man on the moon.’
However, this vision of human boots on Mars ended in 1972 when priorities shifted and space budgets were cut.
A nuclear-powered rocket would substantially reduce the time astronauts would be exposed to deep-space radiation and require fewer supplies, such as food and other cargo, during a trip to Mars
Fast forward to the present, and NASA is back on the path to the Red Planet and has enlisted help from the US government to make it happen.
Dr Stefanie Tompkins, director at DARPA, said in a statement: ‘DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective goals, from the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon for the first time to robotic servicing and refueling of satellites.
‘The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security.
‘The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and eventually, people to Mars.’