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NASA to test nuclear rocket engine for faster Mars missions

Professional Engineering

An artist's concept of the Draco nuclear thermal rocket engine spacecraft (Credits: Darpa)
An artist's concept of the Draco nuclear thermal rocket engine spacecraft (Credits: Darpa)

A new nuclear thermal rocket engine could undergo testing as soon as 2027, NASA and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) have announced.

Aimed at enabling faster deep space missions, such as crewed trips to Mars, the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (Draco) project is the first US programme to test the engine type in more than 50 years.

Announced yesterday (24 January), the project will exploit the propulsion method’s benefits for both agencies. Using a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transit time, reducing the risk to astronauts from radiation and microgravity – a key requirement for missions to Mars, as longer trips require more supplies and more robust systems. Other benefits include increased science payload capacity and higher power for instrumentation and communication.

“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.

In a nuclear thermal rocket engine, a fission reactor generates 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 spacecraft. 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 will lead the overall programme, including rocket systems integration and procurement, and ensuring overall assembly and integration of the engine with the spacecraft. The two agencies will collaborate on assembly of the engine.

“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 refuelling of satellites,” said Darpa director Dr Stefanie Tompkins. “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 Draco nuclear thermal rocket programme will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and, eventually, people to Mars.”

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for STMD, said: “With this collaboration, we will leverage our expertise gained from many previous space nuclear power and propulsion projects.

“Recent aerospace materials and engineering advancements are enabling a new era for space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement toward establishing a space transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy.”

NASA, the US Department of Energy (DOE) and industry are also developing advanced space nuclear technologies through multiple initiatives. Through NASA’s Fission Surface Power project, the DOE awarded three commercial design efforts to develop nuclear power plant concepts that could be used on the surface of the Moon and Mars.

The space agency and DOE are developing another commercial design effort to advance higher temperature fission fuels and reactor designs as part of a nuclear thermal propulsion engine. The design efforts are aimed at increased engine performance, and will not be used for the Draco engine. 


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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