In an effort to cut the time to reach Mars, NASA and other space agencies around the world are developing nuclear-thermal propulsion engines. This technology has been dormant since the 1970’s.
Last year, BWXT Nuclear Energy Inc. struck a deal with NASA for $18.8 Million contract to design a reactor and develop fuel for use in a nuclear-thermal propulsion engine. The contract is aimed to accelerate deep-space travel.
The atomic system found in this type of engine uses the reactor to heat a propellant like liquid hydrogen which then expands through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. This method doubles the efficiency at which the rocket uses fuel, and allows for a drastically smaller spacecraft and shorter transit time, according to Stephen Heister a professor at Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “This factor is absolutely huge, especially for very difficult missions that necessitate a lot of propellant such as a Mars flight.”
According to the World Nuclear Association, Russia’s Rosatom Corp plans to test a nuclear engine prototype this year. The aim of the prototype will be to get to Mars. And with Russia leading this field with more than 30 fission reactors in space they might just get there first. Also, China’s space exploration aims to use atomic-powered shuttles through 2045, as stated by the Xinhua News Agency.
Pioneers like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have also promised to get to the red planet as well. Space Exploration Corp. (founded by Musk) is developing a liquid oxygen and methane-fueled engine. And, Blue Origin (founded by Bezos) is testing an engine that utilizes liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas.
Duration of Travel
The travel to Mars isn’t easy, it requires a spacecraft to travel 55 million kilometers (34 million miles). That is the equivalent of more than 100 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. Nuclear thermal propulsion is the preferred option but other methods are being considered such as solar-electric and chemical propulsion.