NASA, the leading space agency of the United States, is currently undertaking an ambitious project to create a nuclear-powered rocket with the aim of facilitating human exploration to Mars and beyond. In collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NASA revealed on Wednesday that Lockheed Martin has been chosen to spearhead the design, construction, and testing of propulsion systems based on the principles of nuclear fission.
The programme, named Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations or DRACO, is expected to cost as much as $499 million. NASA informed that under the programme, a nuclear-powered rocket will be tested in space as soon as 2027.
“Working with DARPA and companies across the commercial space industry will enable us to accelerate the technology development we need to send humans to Mars,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.
“This demonstration will be a crucial step in meeting our Moon to Mars objectives for crew transportation into deep space.”
According to reports, the DRACO engine would consist of a nuclear reactor, which will be designed and built by BWX Technologies, a company based in Lynchburg, Virginia. The reactor would heat hydrogen from minus 420 degrees Fahrenheit to a toasty 4,400 degrees, with the hot gas shooting from a nozzle to generate thrust.
Notably, a nuclear-powered spacecraft will make space missions faster and much safer for the crew. Reducing transit time is fundamental to human missions to the red planet. This is because a longer transit time means more supplies and more robust systems
“Nuclear propulsion is a key capability on NASA’s roadmap to send astronauts to Mars. A nuclear-powered rocket would enable faster trips to the Red Planet, making missions less complex and safer for crew,” said NASA.
“This type of engine requires significantly less propellant than chemical rockets, so missions would be able to carry additional scientific equipment.”
The current technology allows for the 225 million-kilometre average distance journey from Earth to Mars to be completed in about seven months and that too every 26 months when Mars and Earth are close enough.
While the estimated time using a nuclear thermal rocket engine is not known, as per the NASA Administrator, it would allow astronauts to undertake the “journey to and from deep space faster than ever”.
Apart from the DRACO programme, NASA is currently working with the Department of Energy and other industry stakeholders on space nuclear technology initiatives, including Fission Surface Power.