Advances in technology have been seen as essential for long-distance missions, including a trip to Mars.
The head of the US space agency NASA has said the country plans to test a nuclear-powered airplane engine by 2027, a breakthrough seen as the key to long-range missions including a trip to Mars.
NASA will partner with the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a nuclear propulsion engine and put it into space, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said on Tuesday. The mission has been named the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations or DRACO.
“With the help of this new technology, astronauts can get to and from space faster than ever before – a huge potential for missions to Mars,” Nelson said in a statement.
The announcement comes amid a new nuclear arms race between the US, Russia and China, with the three powers working to expand their nuclear capabilities abroad, including the use of space shuttles and lunar colonies.
A nuclear rocket engine uses a fission reactor to generate high heat. The heat is transferred to the coolant, which is “expanded and exhausted through the nozzle to propel the aircraft”, according to NASA.
The agency said: “A nuclear-powered rocket can be three times or more efficient than a conventional rocket.”
This means that a nuclear-powered spacecraft could make space travel faster and reduce the risk to astronauts. The technology can also allow more power to the devices and the connections they contain.
The U.S. has been harnessing the energy released by radioactive materials in the atmosphere using the heat generated by its decay, according to the industry group the World Nuclear Association.
The country, however, has not used nuclear fission, which produces energy from the splitting of atomic nuclei, in space because of the problem of managing the high temperatures generated by the process.
On the other hand, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been praising the rise of nuclear power to be very important for man to go to space.
“Nuclear technology has been playing an important role in the known environment,” said Mikhail Chudakov, the IAEA’s deputy director general and head of its Nuclear Energy Department, in February 2022.
“But future missions may rely on nuclear weapons to be used in many ways. Our path to the stars goes through the atom.”
Under the NASA-DARPA agreement, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will lead the development of nuclear engine technology, which will eventually be integrated into an experimental aircraft designed by the military.
The agency said the last US nuclear reactor test was completed in the 1970s.
In a statement, Stefanie Tompkins, director of DARPA, praised the plans to create a “leap forward”.
“The world of space is very important for modern business, science, and national security,” he said.