Nuclear Fission to Power Future NASA and DARPA Missions to Mars
The United States plans to test a spacecraft engine powered by nuclear fission by 2007 as part of a long-term NASA effort to demonstrate more efficient methods of propelling astronauts to Mars in the future.
NASA will partner with the US military’s research and development agency, DARPA, to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion engine and launch it to space “as soon as 2027.”
Nuclear thermal propulsion introduces heat from a nuclear fission reactor to a hydrogen propellant to provide a thrust believed to be far more efficient than traditional chemical-based rocket engines.
A trip to Mars from Earth using the technology could take roughly four months instead of some nine months with a conventional, chemically powered engine
This would substantially reduce the time astronauts would be exposed to deep-space radiation and also require fewer supplies, such as food and other cargo, during a trip to Mars.
The planned demonstration is part of an existing DARPA research program that NASA is now joining and could also inform the ambitions of the US Space Force.
DARPA 2021 awarded funds to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin to study designs of nuclear reactors and spacecraft.
By around March, NASA will pick a company to build the nuclear spacecraft for the 2027 demonstration.
The joint NASA-DARPA effort’s budget is $110 million for the fiscal year 2023 and is expected to cross hundreds of millions of dollars more through 2027.
The goal of the project is to develop a new capability for crowded missions to Mars and to prepare for the journey by sending humans beyond the moon and deeper into space.