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NASA announces reboot of Cold War-era ‘nuclear thermal rocket engine’ in preparation for Mars missions

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IT House News on January 25th, NASA announced that it will cooperate with DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency),Rebooting Cold War-era “Nuclear Thermal Rocket Engine” technology.

NASA will be responsible for the development of the rocket engine itself, while DARPA will build the rocket that will carry it.NASA hopes to demonstrate nuclear thermal rocket technology in 2027and prepare for future missions to Mars.

▲ Picture source NASA

IT Home learned that this cooperation plan is named “Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations”, or DRACO for short.

The nuclear-powered rocket that NASA is trying to develop does not directly burn nuclear material as fuel,Instead, the nuclear reactor is used only as a “heater”. What actually generates the thrust is the hydrogen gas that is piped through the reactor, expands rapidly after being heated, and is ejected from the nozzle to generate thrust. This technique was proposed in the 1940s,In the United States, relevant experiments began in the 1950s.

Different from directly using nuclear reaction as fuel, the nuclear reaction of the nuclear thermal rocket engine is closed, and if it is completely operating normally, there will be no leakage of nuclear material. However, if the rocket accidentally explodes before reaching outer space, there is still the possibility of spreading nuclear material into the atmosphere. In order to avoid unnecessary risks and shortage of funds,NASA ended research on nuclear thermal engines in 1972.

Now with decades of experience in the miniaturization of nuclear power systems, improvements in rocket safety, and a greater understanding of nuclear safety,NASA thinks the risks of nuclear thermal rocket engines have come to a manageable range, worth a try in order to shorten the voyage to Mars. Nuclear thermal rocket engines do not need to carry oxidizers because they do not obtain energy from chemical reactions. This makes the nuclear thermal rocket engine more than three times more efficient than ordinary chemical engines. In addition to providing more power, it can also allow the spacecraft to Mars to carry more supplies.

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