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NASA and DARPA Collaborate to Test Nuclear Thermal Engines for Crewed Mars Missions

NASA is resurrecting an ancient concept in order to send people to Mars. It is collaborating with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to conduct space tests of a nuclear thermal rocket engine with the goal of employing the technology for crewed trips to Mars. The organisations plan to “show advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technologies as early as 2027,” according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “With the assistance of this new technology, humans might travel to and from deep space quicker than ever before – a significant capacity for preparing for crewed trips to Mars.”

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will oversee the technical development of the engine, which will be coupled with a DARPA experimental spacecraft under the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) programme. According to NASA, nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) might enable spacecraft to move quicker, reducing the number of supplies required to complete a lengthy journey. An NTD engine might also free up room for more scientific equipment and provide more power for instruments and communication.

Scientists began theorising about the use of nuclear energy to power spaceflight as early as the 1940s. Beginning in the 1950s, the United States conducted ground tests in this area. Budget cuts and shifting priorities (such as a concentration on the Space Shuttle programme) forced NASA to terminate the project before any test flights could take place at the end of 1972.

Of course, there are concerns associated with NTP engines, such as the probable release of radioactive material into the environment if a breakdown occurs in the atmosphere or orbit. Nonetheless, NASA claims that the shorter transit times enabled by NTP engines might lessen human danger – they could cut trip durations to Mars by up to a fourth. Nuclear thermal rockets have the potential to be three times more efficient than traditional chemical propulsion techniques.

NASA is also investigating nuclear energy to power space exploration endeavours. It tested a portable nuclear reactor in 2018 as part of attempts to design a system capable of powering a Mars home. NASA and the Department of Energy picked three firms last year to construct a fission surface power system for testing on the Moon. DARPA and the Defense Department have collaborated on several NTP engine initiatives in recent years.

A compact modular nuclear architecture has just received US approval for the first time. According to Gizmodo, the design allows for a nuclear station around one-third the size of a normal reactor. Each module can generate around 50 megawatts of electricity. The architecture, developed by NuScale, has the potential to reduce the cost and complexity of developing nuclear power facilities.