NASA has revealed plans to create a nuclear-powered rocket that could send astronauts to Mars in just 45 days.
The agency, which has partnered with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design the rocket, announced on Tuesday (Jan. 24) that it could build a working nuclear thermal rocket engine as soon as 2027.
NASA’s current rocket systems (including the Space Launch System which last year sent the Artemis 1 rocket on a historic round-trip to the moon) are based on the century-old, traditional method of chemical propulsion — in which an oxidizer (which gives the reaction more oxygen to combust with) is mixed with flammable rocket fuel to create a flaming jet of thrust. The proposed nuclear system, on the other hand, will harness the chain reaction from tearing apart atoms to power a nuclear fissionreactor that would be “three or more times more efficient” and could reduce Mars flight times to a fraction of the current seven months, according to the agency.
“DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective goals, from the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon for the first time to robotic servicing and refueling of satellites,” Stefanie Tompkins the director of DARPA, said in a statement. “The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security. The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology… will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the moon and, eventually, people to Mars.”