The nuclear-powered spacecraft used to travel quickly to Mars may now be one step closer to reality.
NASA and the United States Department of Energy (DOE) have jointly funded three reactor design concepts that can become part of a nuclear thermal propulsion system, a next-generation technology that can make deep space exploration faster and more efficient.
For example, a spacecraft powered by a nuclear thermal rocket can reach Mars in just three to four months. Experts say that is about half the time required for traditional chemical rockets.
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“Through cooperation between the government and industry, the United States is making progress in nuclear advancement in space, “Jim Reuter, deputy director of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “These design contracts are an important step towards tangible reactor hardware that one day can power new missions and exciting discoveries.” The newly announced contract for
will be awarded through the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). The chamber is the main site of the US Department of Energy’s nuclear energy research. Each contract is worth up to 5 million U.S. dollars. This funding will fund 12 months of development work, which will ultimately result in a reactor design concept. Agency officials said that INL experts will evaluate these concepts and then provide NASA with advice on how to proceed.
The three companies that received the contract are BWX Technologies, Inc., based in Virginia, which will cooperate with Lockheed Martin on the project; San Diego General Atomic Electromagnetic Systems, which will cooperate with Xenergy LLC and Aerojet Rocketdyne; and Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies’ partners include Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, Blue Origin, General Electric Hitachi Nuclear, General Electric Research, Framatome, and Materion. Almost since the beginning of the space age,
nuclear power has provided power for spacecraft, helping NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rover on Mars, the Cassini Saturn probe, and the Twin Voyager spacecraft to carry out pioneering work.
This nuclear technology uses the heat generated by the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 and converts it into electrical energy to power scientific instruments and other equipment. The nuclear thermal propulsion system is another matter entirely. They transfer the heat generated by the nuclear reactor to liquid propellants such as hydrogen, then enter the gas phase, expand and be guided through nozzles to generate thrust.
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nuclear thermal propulsion system will have higher thrust and twice the propellant efficiency than traditional chemical rockets. These advantages are very attractive to the space agency, which is working to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s and hopes to minimize travel time to and from the red planet. The
nuclear reactor can also help humans build tents on other worlds after getting there. For example, NASA is studying fission energy systems for the Moon and Mars.
“NASA intends to cooperate with DOE and INL to issue a request for proposal, requiring industry to carry out a preliminary design of a 10-kilowatt class system that NASA can demonstrate on the surface of the moon.” , agency officials wrote in a statement. “Mature fission surface power can also help provide information for nuclear power propulsion systems, which is another candidate propulsion technology for long-haul destinations.”

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