Scientists have been trying to find a way to use nuclear propulsion to get us to Mars for years. The idea is that it would be much cheaper and quicker than current methods. Nuclear propulsion works by using a nuclear reactor to heat up a gas, which then expands and pushes against the inside of the engine. This creates thrust, which propels the spacecraft forward.
The problem is that we don’t yet have a viable design for a nuclear engine that could take us to Mars. We also don’t know if the radiation from the engine would be harmful to astronauts.
Can nuclear propulsion take us to Mars?
For the first crewed missions to Mars, NASA’s considering two types of nuclear propulsion systems: nuclear electric and nuclear thermal. Also, NASA is investing in surface nuclear propulsion and fission energy technology to enable crewed missions. Also, NASA’s looking at nuclear-powered transportation systems to make surface missions shorter on Mars.
One part of the trip would take advantage of the planet’s low-energy orientation, and another part would use improved technology.
For Artemis, NASA’s developing nuclear electric propulsion and nuclear fission power. U.S. government is developing fuel fabrication capabilities, too. In order to develop and test new nuclear thermal propulsion fuels, NASA is working with DOE, industry, and universities. Research reactors at Idaho National Laboratory and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are testing the fuels.
A nuclear thermal propulsion system presents a major technical challenge, according to the head of NASA’s nuclear technology portfolio.
The fundamentals of nuclear propulsion can enable robust and efficient exploration beyond the moon for NASA’s manned Mars missions.
How long does it take to get to Mars with nuclear power?
Using nuclear thermal propulsion, scientists could shorten how long astronauts need to travel to Mars and stay there. USNC-Tech proposes it could be as short as three months.
USNC-Tech’s technical director Michael Eades says nuclear rockets could make space travel possible for humans and open up space for galactic business opportunities.
NASA wants to reach its destination faster to reduce crew time in space. So NASA is trying to develop nuclear-powered rockets that could take astronauts to Mars and back in less than two years.
USNC-Tech claims to have developed a fuel that can operate at temperatures as high as 2,700 degrees Kelvin (4,400 degrees Fahrenheit).
According to Eades, the rocket’s design will reduce radiation. The distance between the crew and the nuclear reactor provides a buffer, and in case of a disaster, the rocket reactor would not land on Earth for tens of thousands of years.
Nuclear-powered rockets will be crucial to solar system exploration. USNC-Tech says its technology could help with space tourism and rapid logistics services in orbit.
Still, it will take several demonstrations and tests before they go mainstream.
Things you should know about Nuclear Thermal Propulsion
NASA wants to send astronauts to Mars, and thermal nuclear engines could help it do so.
Nuclear rockets have a higher energy density and are twice as efficient. As a result, they can fly farther on less fuel. Additionally, NTPs allows for greater flexibility in space missions.
NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission studied nuclear thermal propulsion in the 1960s.
Three industry teams won a design competition in 2021 and are now developing their designs. In addition, DOE is helping NASA develop new fuels for thermal nuclear propulsion that reduce safety-related costs.
These fuels will be tested at Idaho National Laboratory’s Transient Reactor Test (TREAT) facility.
It is clear that nuclear propulsion could lead us to Mars faster than traditional methods. However, many challenges remain before this method can be used for manned missions. Nevertheless, atomic propulsion remains a promising future option for space exploration.
We will continue to explore all options for getting to Mars safely and efficiently.