NASA and its eccentric cousin DARPA are teaming up to test nuclear-powered rockets that could someday blast astronauts to Mars. If all goes to plan, we could see this tech being demonstrated in the next four to five years.
Time is the main push to develop nuclear rockets for space exploration. In theory, nuclear-powered rockets will be able to travel much faster than conventional rockets, thereby reducing the time it will take for astronauts to reach Mars.
Mars is around 480 million kilometers (300 million miles) away. With current rockets that cruise at around 39,600 kilometers (24,600 miles) per hour, the journey would take seven months or so.
In their announcement on Tuesday, NASA didn’t speculate how fast the nuclear-powered rockets could fly, although their previous nuclear-propulsion projects have suggested they could make the journey to Mars in just 45 days.
“NASA will work with our long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027. 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,” Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator, said in a statement.
NASA has hopes of landing humans on Mars at some time during the 2030s. Part of this plan involves the current Artemis Mission that looks to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon by the end of this decade. By "returning" to the Moon, they hope to better understand what’s needed for human missions to Mars and beyond.
“The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security. The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and eventually, people to Mars,” added Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, director of DARPA.
When it comes to future crewed missions to Mars, transit time is currently a major hurdle. The longer the journey, the higher the risk.
Along with the risk of something going wrong with the spacecraft, astronauts will be exposed to huge amounts of cosmic radiation on their travels. There is also the issue of psychological stress on the astronauts, who will be isolated in cramped and uncomfortable conditions with communication delays back home.
Some spacecraft that have ventured into deep space, such as the Voyager probes and Cassini, have used nuclear energy to fuel their journeys. Russian engineers have also hinted they are developing nuclear rockets for the purpose of missions to Mars. However, the idea of nuclear thermal rockets has been floating around since the early days of the Space Race during the Cold War.