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NASA: Nuclear-powered rocket could take astronauts to Mars in 45 days

With current rocket technology, NASA’s manned mission to Mars would take seven months. According to the space agency, a nuclear-powered spacecraft could complete the journey in just 45 days.

The design, which has been in the works in some form or another for several decades, uses a nuclear reactor to power the rocket.

NASA Nuclear Rocket Plan

Nuclear Thermal and Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) is another strong contender. The original design is based on research conducted by NASA and the Soviet space program during the Space Race all those years ago. NASA restarted the program a few years ago with the explicit goal of developing a bimodal nuclear propulsion device comprised of NTP and NEP elements.

he plan is to build a nuclear-powered spacecraft capable of drastically reducing transit times to Mars and other planets. This month, NASA published an updated page on the subject, detailing how the system would look and how it would take advantage of a wave rotor topping cycle. This new type of propulsion system would cut the trip to Mars by months.

The space agency has chosen a nuclear concept for phase 1 development as part of its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for 2023. It’s unclear when phase 1 development will result in a proper nuclear-powered spacecraft. Nonetheless, seeing the space agency looking for new ways to push its systems further is reassuring for the future of space exploration.

The proposal, titled “Bimodal NTP/NEP with a Wave Rotor Topping Cycle,” was submitted by Prof. Ryan Gosse, the Hypersonics Program Area Lead at the University of Florida and a member of the Florida Applied Research in Engineering (FLARE) team.

Gosse’s proposal was one of 14 chosen by the NAIC this year for Phase I development, which includes a $12,500 grant to help with the maturation of the technology and methods involved. Other submissions included novel sensors, instruments, manufacturing techniques, power systems, and other items.

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New Reactor Designs

With current rocket technology, NASA’s manned mission to Mars would take seven months. According to the space agency, a nuclear-powered spacecraft could complete the journey in just 45 days.

Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NEP), on the other hand, uses a nuclear reactor to generate electricity for a Hall-Effect thruster (ion engine), which creates thrust by ionizing and accelerating an inert gas (such as xenon). Project Prometheus of NASA’s Nuclear Systems Initiative (NSI) is one attempt to develop this technology (2003 to 2005).

Both systems have significant advantages over traditional chemical propulsion, such as higher specific impulse (Isp) ratings, fuel efficiency, and virtually unlimited energy density.

While NEP concepts are notable for providing more than 10,000 seconds of Isp, which means they can maintain thrust for nearly three hours, the thrust level is quite low when compared to conventional rockets and NTP.

This is why proposals that include both propulsion methods (bimodal) are preferred because they combine the benefits of both. Gosse’s proposal calls for a bimodal design based on a solid core NERVA reactor with a specific impulse (Isp) of 900 seconds, which is twice the performance of chemical rockets today.

A transit time of 45 days (six and a half weeks) would cut the overall mission time down to months rather than years. This would significantly reduce the major risks associated with Mars missions, such as radiation exposure, microgravity time, and related health concerns.

In addition to propulsion, new reactor designs are being proposed to provide a consistent power supply for long-duration surface missions where solar and wind power are not always available.

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