NASA and DARPA to Develop Nuclear Thermal Rocket Engine to Take Humans to Mars: Reports

NASA has partnered With the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to use a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space, reports say.

In a press release issued Tuesday, NASA said a nuclear thermal rocket engine could one day be used for NASA crewed missions to Mars.

Artist concept for the Rocket to Agile Cyslunar Operations (DRACO) spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine. Nuclear thermal propulsion technology may be used for future NASA crew missions to Mars.
(DARPA and NASA)

The two companies will collaborate under a “non-reimbursable agreement” on the Demonstration Rocket for Active Cyslunar Operations, or DRACO, project.

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The agreement, the release reads, is designed to benefit both organizations while outlining roles, responsibilities and processes that can accelerate the development of the project.

“We will work with our long-time partner DARPA to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as early as 2027,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “With this new technology, astronauts will be able to go into deep space faster than ever before – a huge capability in preparing for crewed missions to Mars. Congratulations to both NASA and DARPA for this exciting investment, as we ignite the future together.”

A nuclear thermal rocket would allow transportation between Moon and Mars It should take less time while also reducing the risk to the astronauts.

Longer journeys require more supplies, so reducing transit time will be an important component of human missions to Mars.

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Additional benefits include increased science payload capacity and higher power generation for instruments and communications.

Nuclear thermal rocket engines a Fission furnace It produces very high temperatures. The engine converts that heat into a liquid propellant, which is ejected through the spacecraft’s propulsion nozzle.

NASA added that this type of engine would be three times more efficient than chemical propulsion engines.

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover captured this image using its dual-camera Mastcam-Z imager. "Santa Cruz," A mountain inside Jezero Crater on April 29, 2021, the 68th Martian day of the mission, or Sol.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover used its dual-camera MastCam-Z imager to capture the image of the mountain “Santa Cruz” in Jezero Crater on April 29, 2021, the 68th Martian day, or sol.
(Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

“NASA has a long history of working with DARPA,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “Expanding our partnership to nuclear propulsion will help advance NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars.”

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As part of the contract, NASA will lead the technical development of the nuclear thermal engine, while DARP will act as the contracting authority for the platform and engine, including the reactor.

DARPA will lead the overall program including rocket system integration, procurement, approvals, security, planning and more.

The target is to demonstrate the rocket in space by 2027 itself.

“DARPA and NASA have a long history of contributing to the advancement of technologies for our goals, from the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the moon for the first time, to robotic servicing and refueling satellites,” said Dr. Stephanie Tompkins, director, DARPA. “The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific innovation, and national security. The leap-advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential to more efficiently and quickly transporting goods to the Moon, people to Mars.”

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The last U.S. nuclear thermal rocket engine tests were carried out 50 years ago under NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Use and Rover programs, according to NASA.

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