Nuclear Propulsion will cut Mars travel time into half
The breakthrough technology is the next leap in Space travel
With preparation for the first human mission to Mars in full swing, scientists at NASA are working on an advanced propulsion technology to cut the eight-month odyssey to the Red planet into half. Current rockets powered have a severe limitation on the speed with traditional chemical propulsion.
The nuclear propulsion tech is a big deal since a study suggested that prolonged exposure to radiation of Mars-bound astronauts can severely restrict their cognitive abilities & ultimately cause brain damage. Nuclear thermal propulsion will help by reducing travel time & at the same time provide some useful applications here on Earth as well.
Joseph Maguire, the U.S. acting Director of National Intelligence outlined two major uses of the technology — first would be to steer the orbital satellites away from the anti-satellite weapons that China & Russia are currently developing & secondly, small fission reactors can power the remote military bases where there is no alternative power source.
The pitch apparently sat well with the U.S administration as it approved $125 million to develop the nuclear thermal propulsion technology — an aid that the space agency didn’t even ask for. NASA had been working on this technology since 1961 when it embarked on the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program with the Atomic energy commission.
However, a curtailment in the space budget due to shifting political priorities led to a slowdown on the nuclear propulsion work in 1972. Almost five decades later and NASA has reinvigorated the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) as a viable option for the manned mission to Mars.
The time reduction achieved from the NTP means you don't have to wait for a favorable trajectory between the two planets to launch missions. NTP also offers enhanced energy density as compared to conventional chemical systems. Advances in materials technology would also provide a time-efficient & cost-effective way to develop these nuclear rocket engines.
There are drawbacks as well. Fission reactions employ radioactive nuclear material and in case of an accident in space would mean double whammy of nuclear radiation hazard for the crew members — internally & externally. Also if the rocket were to explode in Earth’s atmosphere, it would have devastating consequences for the environment as radiation spreads over vast areas of the planet.
Other nuclear technologies are also being developed to help in the exploration & powering of crewed outposts on Mars & the Moon in the future. Dubbed as “Kilopower reactor” — it would be ready for flight demonstration in 2022. A team of researchers from the University of Washington is working on an even more ambitious project — a nuclear fusion rocket.
Nuclear fusion is the same process that powers the Sun. Human efforts to replicate this process in the lab have so far been unsuccessful since the process is highly unstable & difficult to control. However, if UW is able to produce this fusion rocket, it would translate into even faster rockets. Deep space exploration might not be a pipe dream anymore.