NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars in the coming decade. This presents many challenges, not the least of which is the distance involved and the resulting health risks. To this end, they are investigating and investing in many technologies, ranging from life support and radiation protection to nuclear power and propulsion elements. A particularly promising technology is Nuclear-Thermal Propulsion (NTP), which has the potential to reduce transit times to Mars significantly. Instead of the usual one-way transit period of six to nine months, a working NTP system could reduce the travel time to between 100 and 45 days!
The coming decades of space exploration will see astronauts return to the Moon, the first crewed missions to Mars, and robotic missions to the outer Solar System (among other things). These missions will leverage innovative technologies that allow faster transits, long-duration stays, and sustainable living far from Earth. To this end, NASA and other space agencies are investigating nuclear applications, especially where energy and propulsion are concerned. Many of these proposals have been on the books since the early space age and have been thoroughly validated.
On Tuesday, January 24th, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced they were launching an interagency agreement to develop a nuclear-thermal propulsion (NTP) concept. The proposed nuclear rocket is known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), which would enable fast-transit missions to Mars (weeks instead of months). This three-phase program will culminate with a demonstration of the DRACO in orbit, which is expected to occur by early 2027.