Nasa plans to test a new spacecraft engine powered by nuclear fission, the agency announced on Tuesday.
The space agency hopes to have the nuclear-powered rockets flying by 2027, officials said. The project is called the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, also known as DRACO.
The rockets are powered by thermal nuclear propulsion. In the engine, a nuclear fission reactor generates extreme heat, which is then transferred to a hydrogen propellent. The propellent expands and is exhausted out a nozzle behind the spacecraft, propelling it forward.
This process is estimated to be about three to four times as efficient as conventional chemical rockets.
‘With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,’ Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson said.
Nasa engineers now view nuclear powered rockets as crucial for the ‘Moon to Mars’ initiative, which is aims to eventually send humans to the planet.
Engineers estimate that nuclear fission could cut the travel time to Mars in half. Trips to the red planet using conventional rockets currently take about nine months, while DRACO rockets could cut the travel time down to four months.
‘If we have swifter trips for humans, they are safer trips’ Nasa Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said.
Shorter trips will require astronauts to carry fewer supplies and make spaceflights more efficient overall, the agency said. It will also reduce astronauts’ exposure to deep space radiation.
To make the DRACO a reality, Nasa is partnering with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US government agency whose research eventually lead to innovations like weather satellites, GPS, and the internet.
‘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,’ DARPA Director Dr Stefanie Tompkins said.
The last tests of nuclear fission-powered rockets occurred 50 years ago for the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application project, or NERVA. Nasa hasn’t tested a nuclear rocket since it shut down the program in 1973.
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