NASA developing nuclear powered rocket to get to Mars

Concept art of NASA's nuclear-powered space engine

NASA is developing a nuclear thermal rocket engine for space travel which will enable crewed NASA missions to Mars.

The space agency and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the project overnight, with the aim of proving the effectiveness of the advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology.

“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.

The nuclear thermal rocket would allow for faster transit time, reducing risk to astronauts, NASA said.

Longer trips would also require more supplies and more robust systems.

In terms of how it would work, a fission reactor would be used to generate extremely high temperatures.

The engine would transfer the heat produced by the reactor to a liquid propellant, which was expanded and pushed out through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft.

NASA said the thermal rockets could be more than three times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion.

Nuclear thermal rocket engines have been tested before in the United States – although not for more than 50 years.

"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,” said associate professor Jim Reuter, of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.