Prospective: NASA is working with DARPA to develop a new fission-based engine for the next generation of spacecraft. The space agency hopes to test prototypes by 2027 so the technology can be used in future human travel to deep space and to Mars.
NASA and DARPA are playing with atoms, and they’re eager to show the world the results. The U.S. military’s research and development agency will work with a contractor company that will be selected in the coming weeks, with an expected total budget of several hundred million dollars.
The two U.S. agencies want to develop and test nuclear fission-based spacecraft engines, a technology NASA has used for decades to power its most daring exploration missions, including the twin Voyager rovers and the Mars Science Laboratory. Those are unmanned missions; using nuclear power for crew-based missions is still uncharted territory.
For decades, NASA has studied nuclear propulsion for space exploration, describing nuclear fission as a potential replacement for traditional chemical rocket engines. Nuclear fission produces thermal energy that converts hydrogen propellant into the thrust needed to propel a spacecraft forward with much greater efficiency than conventional propellants.
With this hypothetical nuclear engine, a human travel from Earth to Mars would take four months instead of the nine months estimated for a chemically powered engine, NASA engineers said. The shorter trips would greatly reduce the amount of time astronauts are exposed to dangerous deep-space radiation, and would require fewer supplies and food.
According to Pam Melroy, NASA deputy administrator and former astronaut, “If we provide humans with faster travel, then their travel will be safer.” DARPA already has a nuclear-powered space program, and NASA is now involved. The space agency will provide a budget of $110 million in fiscal year 2023 alone.
Two years ago, DARPA provided some funding to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Blue Origin to design nuclear reactors for spacecraft. In March, U.S. agencies will select the companies responsible for building the reactors. Instead of space exploration, DARPA wants to use a new engine to move satellites around the moon as part of the U.S. Space Force program.