NASA unveils plans to test nuclear-powered rockets

NASA animation details how Mars samples will return to Earth

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NASA has unveiled plans to test nuclear-powered rockets that could send humans to Mars much faster than the traditional craft. According to reports, it currently takes seven months to reach the Red Planet.

On Tuesday, the agency announced the plans and stated that it has partnered with the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space as soon as 2027.

As per the initial plans, the project is intended to develop a pioneering propulsion system for space travel far different from the chemical systems prevalent since the modern era of rocketry dawned almost a century ago.

NASA issued a statement: “Using a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transit time, reducing risk for astronauts.

“Reducing transit time is a key component for human missions to Mars, as longer trips require more supplies and more robust systems.”

The agency further explained that an additional benefit would be increased science payload capacity, and higher power for instrumentation and communication.

A nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) offers a high thrust-to-weight ratio of around 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion and two-to-five times greater efficiency than in-space chemical propulsion.

According to MailOnline, the team plans to use previous NTR models to design DRACO, while providing it with a modern touch – the last technology tested on the ground was more than 50 years ago.

Dr Stefanie Tompkins, director at DARPA, said in a statement: “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.

“The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security.

“The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and eventually, people to Mars.”

Using current technology, Nasa says, the 300m-mile journey to Mars would take about seven months. Engineers do not yet know how much time could be shaved off using nuclear technology, but Bill Nelson, the Nasa administrator, said it would allow spacecraft, and humans, to travel in deep space at record speed.

Mr Nelson said: “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.”

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NASA is eyeing the late 2030s for when it will send humans to the Martian world.

NASA deputy administrator and former astronaut Pam Melroy said Tuesday: “If we have swifter trips for humans, they are safer trips.”

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