Is There a Faster Way to Travel to Mars?
Using current rocket technology, which centers around the traditional method of chemical propulsion, it would take roughly seven months for humans to reach Mars. But there could be a much faster way to get there – nuclear power.
NASA recently announced plans to develop a nuclear thermal rocket engine in partnership with the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It could be ready for testing as soon as 2027, according to the space agency. NASA is planning to investigate nuclear thermal propulsion reactors for the engine, which would use nuclear fission to create extremely high temperatures for heating hydrogen or ammonia and providing thrust. Nuclear fission would be several times more efficient than chemical propulsion, allowing a spacecraft to potentially reach Mars in just 45 days – over five months faster than current projections.
A quick(er) trip to Mars:
- In addition to the convenience of shorter Mars transit times, more efficient travel will make the journey safer for astronauts. The nuclear thermal rocket engine would also reduce the need to bring as many supplies and could allow for more powerful instruments and communication systems.
- The idea of nuclear-powered rockets is nothing new for NASA. The Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) was built in the 1960s and tested on Earth, though it was never fired into space. The end of the Apollo program in 1973 spelled a sharp decline in NASA funding, leaving many projects incomplete.
- NASA's Artemis program, which seeks to return humans to the Moon in the next few years, relies on chemical propulsion. Artemis 1 completed a round-trip to the Moon last year and will be followed next year by a crewed spacecraft making the same journey before Artemis 3 lands humans on the lunar surface, ideally in 2025 or 2026.
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