NASA and DARPA Will Test Nuclear Engine for Future Mars Missions

NASA and DARPA Will Test Nuclear Engine for Future Mars Missions

Using a  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. Maturing faster, more efficient transportation technology will help meet its  to Mars Objectives.

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Source: NASA
Photo credit: DARPA
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NASA and DARPA Will Test Nuclear Engine for Future Mars Missions

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency () announced Tuesday a collaboration to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space, 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. The non-reimbursable agreement designed to benefit both agencies, outlines roles, responsibilities, and processes aimed at speeding 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 for 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 . Nuclear thermal rockets can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion.

Under the agreement, NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) will lead technical development of the nuclear thermal engine to be integrated with DARPA's experimental spacecraft.

DARPA is acting as the contracting authority for the development of the entire stage and the engine, which includes the reactor. DARPA will lead the overall program including rocket systems integration and procurement, approvals, scheduling, and security, cover safety and liability, and ensure overall assembly and integration of the engine with the spacecraft.

Over the course of the development, NASA and DARPA will collaborate on assembly of the engine before the in-space demonstration as early as 2027. 

“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,” said Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, director, DARPA.

“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 program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and eventually, people 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.

NASA, the , and industry are also developing advanced space nuclear technologies for multiple initiatives to harness power for . Through , DOE awarded three commercial design efforts to develop concepts that could be used on the surface of the Moon and, later, Mars.

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