NASA plans to use nuclear power for the first human mission to Mars

The dream of Mars exploration has been alive for decades, but never has it been as feasible as it is now. NASA, together with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is developing a nuclear-powered spacecraft that will significantly reduce the time it takes to fly to Mars. The spacecraft, called DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations), will be launched into Earth orbit in late 2025 or early 2026. DRACO is being built by Lockheed Martin, a leading aerospace and defense company, and will serve as a test bed for nuclear thermal propulsion technology.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has stated that this technology “will allow humans to travel in deep space at record speeds.” While it is not yet clear how much nuclear thermal propulsion technology will be able to reduce flight times, DRACO is expected to be a treasure trove of crucial data that will usher in a new era of space exploration.

Groundbreaking technology: Nuclear thermal rocket

At the heart of DRACO’s technology is a nuclear-thermal rocket (NTR), which is about 10,000 times more thrust-to-weight ratio than electric propulsion and two to five times more efficient than space chemical propulsion. The technology uses heat from a nuclear fission reactor to heat hydrogen fuel, which then expands through a nozzle and creates thrust, propelling the spacecraft.

Nuclear propulsion technology has been on NASA’s radar for more than six decades. The concept was first considered in the 1960s, when rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun advocated a nuclear-powered mission to Mars. Unfortunately, budget constraints and shifting priorities led to the abandonment of the idea in 1972.

Improving the safety of astronauts

Nuclear propulsion not only speeds up flight, but also increases astronaut safety. A shorter flight time means less risk of radiation exposure in deep space and a smaller logistical footprint due to less cargo needed for the flight. “If we have faster travel for humans, it will be safer,” said NASA deputy administrator and former astronaut Pam Melroy.

DRACO is expected to provide valuable data that will enable more efficient and faster delivery of materials to the moon and eventually humans to Mars. “The opportunity to leapfrog space technology with the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be of tremendous value,” commented Dr. Stephanie Tompkins, Director of DARPA.

The DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program represents a significant milestone in space exploration. This technology, which could significantly reduce the time to travel to Mars, could pave the way for more ambitious space missions in the future. As we continue to push the boundaries of space exploration, it is critical to have revolutionary technologies that can help us reach our goals faster and safer.

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