Nuclear Rocket Engine Trial by NASA Aiming for 45-Day Mars Journey

NASA is embarking on an ambitious mission to drastically reduce travel time to Mars. Collaborating with Lockheed Martin and DARPA, NASA is reviving research on nuclear thermal propulsion, a technology that was initially explored 70 years ago.

The aim is to test a nuclear-powered rocket in space by 2027. This project, named DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations), has a budget of approximately $500 million, with Lockheed Martin leading the spacecraft design, integration, and testing, while BWX Technologies will develop the nuclear fission reactor to power the engine.

The key advantage of a nuclear thermal rocket lies in its high thrust, similar to chemical propulsion, but with up to three times greater efficiency. This breakthrough could potentially shorten the journey to Mars from the current seven months to an astonishing 45 days.

Additionally, NASA is eyeing an efficient Earth-to-Moon connection. Kirk Shireman, Vice President for Lunar Exploration Campaign at Lockheed Martin, emphasized the importance of higher thrust propulsion, indicating that this project could be on the verge of a major breakthrough.

The project builds on past research into nuclear rockets, which was discontinued in the 1970s due to budget constraints. However, DRACO introduces a new fuel option that presents fewer logistical challenges. By utilizing high-assay, low-enriched uranium, the fission-based reactor can heat liquid hydrogen to extreme temperatures, generating the necessary thrust. This increased efficiency not only reduces transit time but also minimizes risks to astronauts and decreases payload requirements for supplies and systems.

Despite the promising potential, there are technical hurdles to overcome. One major challenge is heating the hydrogen to a scorching 4,400°F while storing it at an incredibly frigid minus-420°F. According to Tabitha Dodson, DARPA program manager for the project, this serves as a dual demonstration, showcasing both the nuclear thermal rocket and on-orbit storage of cryogenic liquid hydrogen.

In the planned 2027 test launch, the fission reactor will remain inactive until the rocket reaches its designated orbit, ensuring safety. The U.S. Space Force will provide the launch vehicle for this crucial mission. The initial DRACO test aims to send the craft between 435 and 1,240 miles into space without planned maneuvers, allowing the reactor to utilize the new fuel and gather vital data. Moreover, with two months of liquid hydrogen stored on the craft, crews may explore the possibility of in-space refueling. This ambitious endeavor could herald a new era for space exploration, benefiting both the United States and humankind as a whole.

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