Astronauts and scientists alike agree: we’ve been able to go to Mars for a while now. The reason we haven’t conquered the Red Planet is nothing to do with lacking the technology or political will – it’s because our puny human bodies couldn’t take it.
Essentially, any Mars-bound mission would simply take too long for interplanetary travelers to walk away unscathed. The years-long trip would likely leave astronauts with their guts destroyed, their brains damaged, and their cells aged – and that’s to say nothing of the psychological effects of being off-world for so long.
But there might be a solution – at least if new reports out of Russia are to be believed. In an interview with the state-published Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Vladimir Koshlakov, general director of the Keldysh Research Center in Moscow, unveiled a new nuclear-powered propulsion system which he says could take rockets to Mars much quicker than current technology.
The technology, which Koshlakov describes as “unique,” has apparently been in development since 2009, and has just completed ground tests.
The Keldysh engineers are not the first to turn to nuclear energy for potential Mars missions. Earlier this year, NASA dusted off some cold-war-era plans for “atomic rockets” that would cut down on travel time, and last year China announced their development of a “nuclear fleet” of spacecraft, set to be completed by 2040.
According to Koshlakov, the rockets will work essentially the same way as any nuclear power plant. The power source heats a liquid – in this case, cryogenic methane – to produce gas, which is then converted by a turbine into electrical energy. The resulting current then powers the spacecraft systems and engines.
This method has quite a few benefits for prospective interplanetary missions. Like Elon Musk and his history-making Falcon 9 rockets, the engineers at Keldysh want their future spacecraft to be reusable. Using nuclear energy, rather than carbon-based alternatives like kerosene, means that rockets will not require cleaning between launches. Using methane in particular promises to make the spacecraft lighter and less expensive.
But the main advantage, of course – at least for budding Martian colonists – is the speed.
“With [today’s] systems, it takes a very long time to fly to Mars. For crewed flights this is bad: a person should not be in outer space for more than a year or two,” explained Koshlakov. “Nuclear energy systems will be able to fly fast enough… a few days to the Moon, yes, and a flight to Mars in seven to eight months.”
Although these nuclear-powered space travels are described as “feasible in the near future,” we shouldn’t get too excited just yet. We may have to wait quite some time to see rockets with nuclear engines, as Koshlakov confirmed that the technology would not be used for the Soyuz-5 rockets planned for completion in 2022, or even the Soyuz-5 Super Heavy rocket currently slated for a 2028 launch.
“[The new engines will be installed on] new, prospective rockets,” explained Koshlakov, “the study of which is still underway.”