NASA and DARPA plan to test a nuclear-powered rocket that could take humans to Mars in record time

NASA and DARPA plan to test a nuclear-powered rocket that could take humans to Mars in record time
  • NASA aims to test a nuclear-powered rocket within five years, the agency said Tuesday.

  • An early concept suggests the rockets could get there within 45 days.

  • The space agency aims to put humans on Mars for the first time by the late 2030s.

NASA is investing in plans to test a nuclear-propelled rocket by 2027 that could reach Mars within weeks, the agency's chief Bill Nelson said in a statement this week.

The agency is teaming up with the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to make a rocket that could reach Mars in record time. They aim to test that rocket by 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," NASA administrator Bill Nelson said Tuesday.

NASA's recent successful Artemis I mission to the moon was only the first step in its plans to advance human space exploration. The agency aims to put humans on Mars, for the first time, by the late 2030s or early 2040s.

Early missions to the red planet would only last about 30 days, so making sure that travel time is minimized is crucial.

Nuclear thermal propulsion is not a new idea for rockets — the concept was first tested in the 60s.

It relies on using a nuclear reactor to heat a liquid propellant such as hydrogen. That heat converts the liquid to gas. As it expands, the gas is funneled through a nozzle, which generates thrust, propelling the rocket forward.

These rockets would be three or more times more efficient than traditional chemical-based rocket engines, and much faster.

Not only would they be able to carry a heavier workload, but they would also travel quicker than their chemical counterparts, per the press release.

Transit to Mars using a nuclear-powered rocket could take four months, a lot shorter than the usual nine months for older rocket models, Reuters reported.

NASA has also funded an application to develop a concept for a new type of nuclear-thermal propulsion system. If that concept proves to work, it could reduce travel time to Mars to just 45 days, per the concept application.

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