NASA to work with military agency on nuclear rocket test flight

US space agency NASA is teaming up with a military research agency to develop a nuclear rocket to send astronauts to Mars.

NASA recently announced that it would partner with the US Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in this effort. As the Army’s research and development group, DARPA has historically helped spearhead many notable inventions, including the beginnings from the internet.

Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator said the first nuclear-powered rocket test flight could be launched as early as 2027.

The developing technology is called nuclear thermal propulsion. A rocket powered by this technology can travel much faster than with traditional chemical propulsion systems.

NASA has long studied nuclear thermal propulsion for possible use in space travel. But its last engine trials using the technology took place more than 50 years ago. The government terminated the development program for budgetary reasons and because of Cold War tensions.

NASA said that with nuclear thermal propulsion, a trip to Mars could be completed in three to four months. That compares to about seven months with chemical propulsion. Building nuclear-powered rockets would allow more crewed travel and improve astronaut safety, the space agency says. Shorter routes would also require less equipment and other supplies.

Reducing travel times will be an important part of NASA’s future plans. It plans to increase the number of crewed flights as it seeks to return humans to the Moon by the mid-2020s and later to Mars.

Nelson said in a statement: “With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crew assignments to Mars.”

Nuclear thermal propulsion engines operate at a much higher energy density and are twice as efficient like rocket engines, officials say.

The US Department of Energy describes on its website how a nuclear thermal propulsion system works. It needs a radioactive material like uranium and another element, like hydrogen, in liquid form. This forms a propellant which is forced through the central part of a nuclear reactor. This causes the uranium atoms inside the reactor to break apart and release heat. The heat turns the propellant into gas, which expands through an opening to produce dip.

This type of energetic reaction, called fission, is necessary to create the extremely high temperatures needed to push heavy spacecraft on distant journeys.

DARPA and the US Department of Energy have already jointly developed a nuclear thermal propulsion system that will be used in a demonstration test flight. In 2021, DARPA granted money to contractors General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin to study the design of nuclear reactors and spacecraft.

This NASA illustration shows the representation of a nuclear fission energy system on Mars.  NASA claims that fission surface power can provide abundant and continuous power regardless of environmental conditions on the Moon and Mars.  (Image credit: NASA)

This NASA illustration shows the representation of a nuclear fission energy system on Mars. NASA claims that fission surface power can provide abundant and continuous power regardless of environmental conditions on the Moon and Mars. (Image credit: NASA)

Tabitha Dodson oversees DARPA’s efforts on the testing program. She told Reuters news agency that by March the agency should choose a company to build the nuclear spacecraft for the 2027 demonstration.

NASA said it plans to continue to study and develop modern space nuclear technologies for other areas of the space program. This includes plans to put nuclear reactor power systems on the Moon, and later on Mars, to support future human space activities.

I am Brian Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from NASA, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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words in this story

thermal – adj. relating to heat

propulsion – nm a force that drives something forward

journey – nm a long trip

assignment nm the flight of a spacecraft to perform a task or job

efficient – adj. works well and does not waste time and energy

propellant – nm an explosive substance of fuel that makes something move

dip nm push or force up

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