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NASA’s new nuclear rockets could cut Mars journey in half

Getting to Mars typically takes more than half a year, but that time could be shortened by NASA’s upcoming nuclear-powered rocket project.

It’s been a big month for the physics lovers out there, with Oppenheimer making its debut in cinema and NASA announcing plans to test the launch of a nuclear rocket in space.

On Wednesday, the team announced that it would be collaborating with the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create a nuclear thermal rocket engine. The main goal is to shorten the amount of time it takes to get to Mars and beyond.

The ball on this project has already started rolling.

Lockheed Martin, an aerospace and military defence company, has been selected to design, build, and trial a nuclear propulsion system. It may be the rocket that makes manned missions to Mars and other planets more feasible, thanks to its rapid speed.

The new nuclear program is named DRACO, short for the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations. It will cost a massive $499 million USD and – if successful – DRACO would become the first nuclear-powered rocket to fly into space.

How long is the trip to Mars?

Around once every 26 months, Mars and Earth pass each other more closely, allowing for a shorter journey between the two.

Despite this handy window, the average duration of the 140-million-mile trip sits at around seven to nine months. This length of travel is still considered too long for astronauts to withstand the harsh environment of space.

If powered by nuclear fission, the spacecraft could continue accelerating during the first half of the mission. It would then begin slowing down again, allowing for the duration of the journey to be slashed.

Current rocket engines, which are powered by the combustion of fuel such as hydrogen or methane with oxygen, are not capable of speeding up after their initial launches.

They also do not have enough room to carry enough propellant to create the propulsion that a nuclear engine would. Nuclear reactions, which generate energy from the split of uranium atoms, are far more efficient.

They also anticipate that this new technology may also be used to enable rapid manoeuvres of military satellites, helping to generate a ‘lunar economy’.


Are nuclear-powered rockets a new idea?

Not quite. During the 50’s and 60’s 1950s, NASA worked with the Air Force and the Advanced Research Projects Agency on Project Orion.

Together, they wondered if they could use the explosions of atomic bombs to accelerate space travel. They built and tested a series of 23 reactors, but none of them were ever launched into space.

A key difference between these previous models and DRACO is that earlier prototypes used weapons-grade uranium for its reactors, while DRACO will use a less-enriched form of uranium.

Project Orion was eventually abandoned due to the Partial Test Ban Treaty which banned nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater. There were also worries about nuclear fallout, the residual radioactive material propelled into the upper atmosphere during a nuclear explosion.

For those worried about how DRACO’s nuclear explosion could affect us down here on Earth, the team at NASA say that the reactor would only be turned on once the rocket exited Earth’s atmosphere in order to avoid any potential tragedies.

Pam Melroy, NASA’s deputy administrator said, ‘This demonstration will be a crucial step in meeting our Moon to Mars objectives for crew transportation into deep space.’

We’ll get our first look at project DRACO through a flight test of the nuclear-thermal engine. A launch is currently scheduled for late 2026 or early 2027.