Man on Mars getting closer to reality: NASA announces plans for nuclear rocket that will cut travel time by seven months
NASA revealed on Tuesday that it is building a nuclear-powered rocket that could send humans to Mars much faster than the traditional craft – it currently takes seven months to reach the Red Planet.
The US space agency has partnered with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program which will be tested in 2027.
A nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) offers a high thrust-to-weight ratio approximately 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion and two to five times more efficient than chemical propulsion in space.
The team plans to use previous NTR models to design DRACO, while giving it a modern twist – the latest field-tested technology dates back over 50 years.
NASA and DARPA are working on a nuclear rocket that could get humans to Mars much faster – dramatically cutting the current seven-month journey
The space agency has been studying the concept of nuclear thermal propulsion for decades.
This technology introduces heat from a nuclear fission reactor into a hydrogen propellant to provide 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 to astronauts because they wouldn’t be traveling in space for as long.
This would significantly reduce the time astronauts would be exposed to deep space radiation and require fewer supplies, such as food and other cargo, on a trip to Mars.
NASA is looking to the late 2030s to find out when it will send humans to the Martian world.
“If we have faster travel for humans, it’s safer travel,” NASA assistant administrator and former astronaut Pam Melroy said Tuesday.
The NTR transfers heat from the reactor directly to a hydrogen gas booster.
The heated hydrogen expands through a nozzle to provide thrust to propel a spacecraft.
And the materials inside the fission reactor must be able to survive temperatures above 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA has had NTR on its radar for over 60 years and first embarked on the mission in 1961.
This led Wernher von Braun, then director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and rocket pioneer, to argue for a proposed mission, sending a dozen crew members to Mars aboard two rockets.
Each rocket would be powered by three NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) engines – designs drafted in 1961.
As detailed by von Braun, this expeditionary crew would launch to the Red Planet in November 1981 and land on this distant world in August 1982.
Presenting his visionary plan in August 1969 to a space task force, von Braun explained that “although the undertaking of this mission is a great national challenge, it does not represent a 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 changed and space budgets were cut.
A nuclear-powered rocket would dramatically reduce the time astronauts would be exposed to deep-space radiation and require fewer supplies, such as food and other cargo, on a trip to Mars
Fast forward to now, and NASA is back on its way to the Red Planet and has asked for help from the US government to get there.
Dr Stefanie Tompkins, Director of DARPA, said in a statement: ‘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 on the Moon for the first time to robotic maintenance and refueling of satellites.
“The space domain is essential to modern commerce, scientific discovery and national security.
“The ability to make significant advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be critical to more efficiently and quickly transporting materials to the Moon and, eventually, people to Mars.”