The United States space agency NASA has said the country plans to test a spacecraft engine powered with nuclear fission by 2027, an advancement seen as key to long-haul missions including a manned journey to Mars. NASA will partner with the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop the nuclear thermal propulsion engine and launch it into space, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said.
Name of The Project:
The project has been named the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations or DRACO.
Significance of This Development:
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. Using a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transit time, reducing risk for astronauts.
Other benefits to space travel include increased science payload capacity and higher power for instrumentation and communication.
In a nuclear thermal rocket engine, a fission reactor is used to generate 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
How will nuclear propulsion work:
- Nuclear propulsion is based on two concepts Nuclear-Thermal Propulsion (NTP) and Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NEP).
- The NTP system includes a nuclear reactor that will heat liquid hydrogen (LH2) propellant and turn it into ionised hydrogen gas (plasma) that will then be channelled through nozzles to generate thrust.
- NEP depends on a nuclear reactor to provide electricity to a Hall-Effect thruster (ion engine).
- It will generate an electromagnetic field that will ionise and accelerate an inert gas (for example xenon) to create thrust.