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US to test nuclear-powered spacecraft for the first time in 50 years


This image shows: Artist concept of Demonstration for Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine. Nuclear thermal propulsion technology could be used for future NASA crewed missions to Mars. NASA and America???s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are to build a nuclear-powered spaceship in a bid to take humans to Mars. They announced a ???collaboration to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space??? on Tuesday (24January2023), adding that it would have ???an enabling capability for NASA crewed missions to Mars???. NASA and DARPA will partner on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program - which is designed to speed up development efforts. ???NASA will work with our long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027. 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,??? said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. ???Congratulations to both NASA and DARPA on this exciting investment, as we ignite the future, together.??? Using a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transit time, reducing risk for astronauts. Reducing transit time is a key component human missions to Mars, as longer trips require more supplies and more robust systems. Maturing faster, more efficient transportation technology will help NASA meet its Moon to Mars Objectives. Other benefits to space travel include increased science payload capacity and higher power for instrumentation and communication. In a nuclear thermal rocket engine, a fission reactor is used to generate extremely high temperatures. The engine transfers the heat produced by the reactor to a liquid propellant, which is expanded and exhausted through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. Nuclear thermal rockets can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion. ???NASA has a long history of collaborating with DARPA on projects that enable our respective missions, such as in-space servicing,??? said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. ???Expanding our partnership to nuclear propulsion will help drive forward NASA's goal to send humans to Mars.??? The last nuclear thermal rocket engine tests conducted by the United States occurred more than 50 years ago under NASA???s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects. ???With this collaboration, we will leverage our expertise gained from many previous space nuclear power and propulsion projects,??? said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for STMD.
Nasa plans to test a nuclear fission-powered rocket engine to send humans to Mars faster (Picture: DARPA/Cover Images)

Nasa plans to test a nuclear fission-powered rocket engine to send humans to Mars faster (Picture: DARPA/Cover Images)

Nasa plans to test a new spacecraft engine powered by nuclear fission, the agency announced on Tuesday.

The space agency hopes to have the nuclear-powered rockets flying by 2027, officials said. The project is called the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, also known as DRACO.

The rockets are powered by thermal nuclear propulsion. In the engine, a nuclear fission reactor generates extreme heat, which is then transferred to a hydrogen propellent. The propellent expands and is exhausted out a nozzle behind the spacecraft, propelling it forward.

This process is estimated to be about three to four times as efficient as conventional chemical rockets.

Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson said the agency hopes to have the rockets flying as soon as 2027 (Picture: AFP)

‘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,’ Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson said.

Nasa engineers now view nuclear powered rockets as crucial for the ‘Moon to Mars’ initiative, which is aims to eventually send humans to the planet.

Engineers estimate that nuclear fission could cut the travel time to Mars in half. Trips to the red planet using conventional rockets currently take about nine months, while DRACO rockets could cut the travel time down to four months.

‘If we have swifter trips for humans, they are safer trips’ Nasa Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said.

Shorter trips will require astronauts to carry fewer supplies and make spaceflights more efficient overall, the agency said. It will also reduce astronauts’ exposure to deep space radiation.

To make the DRACO a reality, Nasa is partnering with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US government agency whose research eventually lead to innovations like weather satellites, GPS, and the internet.

‘DARPA and Nasa have a long history of fruitful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective goals, from the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon for the first time to robotic servicing and refueling of satellites,’ DARPA Director Dr Stefanie Tompkins said.

The last tests of nuclear fission-powered rockets occurred 50 years ago for the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application project, or NERVA. Nasa hasn’t tested a nuclear rocket since it shut down the program in 1973.

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