West News Wire: A nuclear fission-powered spacecraft engine will be tested by the US by 2027, according to the head of NASA, a development that is essential for long-distance missions like manned expeditions to Mars.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson announced on Tuesday that the agency will collaborate with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the US military to build and launch the nuclear thermal propulsion engine into orbit. The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, is the project’s official name.
The ability to travel to and from deep space more quickly than ever thanks to this new technology will help astronauts become ready for crewed missions to Mars, according to Nelson.
The announcement comes amid a new nuclear space race between the US, Russia and China, with the three superpowers working to expand their extraterrestrial nuclear capabilities, including for use propelling spacecraft and powering colonies on the moon.
A nuclear thermal rocket engine uses a fission reactor to generate extremely high temperatures. The heat is then transferred to a liquid propellant, which “is expanded and exhausted through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft”, according to NASA.
“A nuclear thermal rocket can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion,” according to the agency.
That means that a spacecraft powered by nuclear fission could result in faster travel times and less risk to astronauts. The technology could also allow for more power for instruments and communications on board.
The US has long used energy produced by radioactive material in its space work by harnessing the heat generated by its decay, according to the World Nuclear Association industry group.
The country, however, has not used nuclear fission, which creates energy from splitting atomic nuclei, on spacecraft due in part to the challenge of managing the extreme heat created by the process.
For its part, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has long hailed nuclear thermal propulsion as critical to journeying farther into space.
“Nuclear technology has long played a vital role in prominent space missions,” Mikhail Chudakov, the IAEA’s deputy director general and head of its Department of Nuclear Energy, said in February 2022.
But future missions could rely on nuclear-powered systems for a much broader spectrum of applications. Our pathway to the stars runs through the atom.”
Under the NASA-DARPA agreement, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will lead technical development of the nuclear thermal engine, which will eventually be integrated with an experimental spacecraft created by the military.