Nasa plans to test a nuclear thermal rocket within the next five years — which could one day take humans to Mars and beyond.
Currently, it takes at least eight months to reach the Red Planet, but the technology would help reduce that time significantly.
Nasa is teaming up with the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the US Department of Defence, to develop the nuclear thermal rocket engine and test it in space.
“Nasa will work with our long-term partner, Darpa, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027,” said Nasa administrator Bill Nelson on Tuesday.
“With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever — a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars.”
The project, known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations nuclear thermal rocket programme, uses a fission reactor to generate extremely high temperatures.
A nuclear engine then transfers that heat to a liquid propellant, which is expanded and expelled through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft.
Stefanie Tompkins, director of Darpa, said the agency has historic ties with Nasa — having worked on the Saturn V rocket with the space agency. This took humans to the Moon for the first time, in 1969.
“The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security,” she said.
“The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations nuclear thermal rocket programme will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and eventually, people to Mars.”
Under the agreement, Nasa will lead the technical development of the engine, which will be integrated with Darpa’s experimental spacecraft.
The last nuclear thermal rocket engine tests conducted by the US took place more than 50 years ago, under Nasa’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also building a Mars rocket, called Starship.
Starship will use six Raptor rocket engines that are powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen. These will not significantly reduce the present journey time.
Nasa is also working with the Department of Energy to develop other space nuclear technologies, including the space agency's Fission Surface Power project.
This involves developing nuclear power plan concepts that could be used on the surface of the Moon and Mars, which would help supply energy to human settlements.