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!
For space agencies and the commercial space industry, the priorities of the next two decades are clear. First, astronauts will be sent to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, followed by the creation of permanent infrastructure that will allow them to say there for extended periods. Then, the first crewed missions will be sent to Mars, with follow-up missions every 26 months, culminating in the creation of surface habitats (and maybe a permanent base). To meet these objectives, space agencies are investigating next-generation propulsion, power, and life support systems.
This includes solar-electric propulsion (SEP), where solar energy is used to power extremely fuel-efficient Hall-Effect thrusters. Similarly, they are looking into nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) and compact nuclear reactors, allowing for shorter transit times and providing a steady power supply for Lunar and Martian habitats. Beyond NASA, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) has partnered with Rolls-Royce to develop nuclear systems for space exploration. In a recent tweet, the international auto and aerospace giant provided a teaser of what their “micro-reactor” will look like.
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.
We live in an era of renewed space exploration, where multiple agencies are planning to send astronauts to the Moon in the coming years. This will be followed in the next decade with crewed missions to Mars by NASA and China, who may be joined by other nations before long. These and other missions that will take astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the Earth-Moon system require new technologies, ranging from life support and radiation shielding to power and propulsion. And when it comes to the latter, Nuclear Thermal and Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) is a top contender!
NASA and the Soviet space program spent decades researching nuclear propulsion during the Space Race. A few years ago, NASA reignited its nuclear program for the purpose of developing bimodal nuclear propulsion – a two-part system consisting of an NTP and NEP element – that could enable transits to Mars in 100 days. As part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for 2023, NASA selected a nuclear concept for Phase I development. This new class of bimodal nuclear propulsion system uses a “wave rotor topping cycle” and could reduce transit times to Mars to just 45 days.
With the help of international and commercial partners, NASA is sending astronauts back to the Moon for the first time in over fifty years. In addition to sending crewed missions to the lunar surface, the long-term objective of the Artemis Program is to create the necessary infrastructure for a program of “sustained lunar exploration and development.” But unlike the Apollo missions that sent astronauts to the equatorial region of the Moon, the Artemis Program will send astronauts to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, culminating in the creation of a habitat (the Artemis Basecamp).
This region contains many permanently-shadowed craters and experiences a night cycle that lasts fourteen days (a “Lunar Night“). Since solar energy will be limited in these conditions, the Artemis astronauts, spacecraft, rovers, and other surface elements will require additional power sources that can operate in cratered regions and during the long lunar nights. Looking for potential solutions, the Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI) and the NASA Glenn Research Center recently hosted two space nuclear technologies workshops designed to foster solutions for long-duration missions away from Earth.
What if we had the ability to chase down interstellar objects passing through our Solar System, like Oumuamua or Comet Borisov? Such a spacecraft would need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, with the capacity to increase speed and change direction quickly.
“Bringing back samples from these objects could fundamentally change our view of the universe and our place in it,” says Christopher Morrison, an engineer from the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation-Tech (USNC-Tech) who submitted the proposal to NIAC.
If human beings intend to become an interplanetary species (or interstellar, for that matter), then we are going to need new propulsion methods that combine a significant level of thrust with fuel-efficiency. One option that NASA has been exploring for decades is spacecraft that rely on nuclear power, which can take the form of nuclear-electric or nuclear-thermal propulsion (NEP/NTP).
In the current era of space exploration, other space agencies are looking into this technology as well. For instance, the UK Space Agency recently signed a contract with the British automotive engineering firm Rolls-Royce. As per their duties, Rolls-Royce will investigate applications for nuclear power and propulsion. Given the company’s record of mechanical, electrical, and nuclear power solutions
In what’s likely to be one of the last space policy initiatives of his administration, President Donald Trump has issued a directive that lays out a roadmap for nuclear power applications beyond Earth.
Space Policy Directive 6, released on December 16th, calls on NASA and other federal agencies to advance the development of in-space nuclear propulsion systems as well as a nuclear fission power system on the Moon.
“Space nuclear power and propulsion is a fundamentally enabling technology for American deep space missions to Mars and beyond,” Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, said in a White House news release. “The United States intends to remain the leader among spacefaring nations, applying nuclear power technology safely, securely and sustainably in space.”
In its pursuit of missions that will take us back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond, NASA has been exploring a number of next-generation propulsion concepts. Whereas existing concepts have their advantages – chemical rockets have high energy density and ion engines are very fuel-efficient – our hopes for the future hinge on us finding alternatives that combine efficiency and power.
To this end, researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center are once again looking to develop nuclear rockets. As part of NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) project would see the creation of high-efficiency spacecraft that would be capable of using less fuel to deliver heavy payloads to distant planets, and in a relatively short amount of time.
As Sonny Mitchell, the project of the NTP project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a recent NASA press statement:
“As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond. We’re excited to be working on technologies that could open up deep space for human exploration.”
To see this through, NASA has entered into a partnership with BWX Technologies (BWXT), a Virginia-based energy and technology company that is a leading supplier of nuclear components and fuel to the U.S. government. To assist NASA in developing the necessary reactors that would support possible future crewed missions to Mars, the company’s subsidiary (BWXT Nuclear Energy, Inc.) was awarded a three-year contract worth $18.8 million.
During this three years in which they will be working with NASA, BWXT will provide the technical and programmatic data needed to implement NTP technology. This will consist of them manufacturing and testing prototype fuel elements and helping NASA to resolve any nuclear licensing and regulatory requirements. BWXT will also aid NASA planners in addressing the issues of feasibility and affordably with their NTP program.
“BWXT is extremely pleased to be working with NASA on this exciting nuclear space program in support of the Mars mission. We are uniquely qualified to design, develop and manufacture the reactor and fuel for a nuclear-powered spacecraft. This is an opportune time to pivot our capabilities into the space market where we see long-term growth opportunities in nuclear propulsion and nuclear surface power.”
In an NTP rocket, uranium or deuterium reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas (plasma), which is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust. A second possible method, known as Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEC), involves the same basic reactor converted its heat and energy into electrical energy which then powers an electrical engine.
In both cases, the rocket relies on nuclear fission to generates propulsion rather than chemical propellants, which has been the mainstay of NASA and all other space agencies to date. Compared to this traditional form of propulsion, both types of nuclear engines offers a number of advantages. The first and most obvious is the virtually unlimited energy density it offers compared to rocket fuel.
This would cut the total amount of propellant needed, thus cutting launch weight and the cost of individual missions. A more powerful nuclear engine would mean reduced trip times. Already, NASA has estimated that an NTP system could make the voyage to Mars to four months instead of six, which would reduce the amount of radiation the astronauts would be exposed to in the course of their journey.
To be fair, the concept of using nuclear rockets to explore the Universe is not new. In fact, NASA has explored the possibility of nuclear propulsion extensively under the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office. In fact, between 1959 and 1972, the SNPO conducted 23 reactor tests at the Nuclear Rocket Development Station at AEC’s Nevada Test Site, in Jackass Flats, Nevada.
In 1963, the SNPO also created the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) program to develop nuclear-thermal propulsion for long-range crewed mission to the Moon and interplanetary space. This led to the creation of the NRX/XE, a nuclear-thermal engine which the SNPO certified as having met the requirements for a crewed mission to Mars.
The Soviet Union conducted similar studies during the 1960s, hoping to use them on the upper stages of of their N-1 rocket. Despite these efforts, no nuclear rockets ever entered service, owing to a combination of budget cuts, loss of public interest, and a general winding down of the Space Race after the Apollo program was complete.
But given the current interest in space exploration, and ambitious mission proposed to Mars and beyond, it seems that nuclear rockets may finally see service. One popular idea that is being considered is a multistage rocket that would rely on both a nuclear engine and conventional thrusters – a concept known as a “bimodal spacecraft”. A major proponent of this idea is Dr. Michael G. Houts of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
In 2014, Dr. Houts conducted a presentation outlining how bimodal rockets (and other nuclear concepts) represented “game-changing technologies for space exploration”. As an example, he explained how the Space Launch System (SLS) – a key technology in NASA’s proposed crewed mission to Mars – could be equipped with chemical rocket in the lower stage and a nuclear-thermal engine on the upper stage.
In this setup, the nuclear engine would remain “cold” until the rocket had achieved orbit, at which point the upper stage would be deployed and the reactor would be activated to generate thrust. Other examples cited in the report include long-range satellites that could explore the Outer Solar System and Kuiper Belt and fast, efficient transportation for manned missions throughout the Solar System.
The company’s new contract is expected to run through Sept. 30th, 2019. At that time, the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project will determine the feasibility of using low-enriched uranium fuel. After that, the project then will spend a year testing and refining its ability to manufacture the necessary fuel elements. If all goes well, we can expect that NASA’s “Journey to Mars” might just incorporate some nuclear engines!
On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons space probe made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of the dwarf planet of Pluto. Since that time, it has been making its way through the Kuiper Belt, on its way to joining Voyager 1 and 2 in interstellar space. With this milestone reached, many are wondering where we should send our spacecraft next.
Naturally, there are those who recommend we set our sights on our nearest star – particularly proponents of interstellar travel and exoplanet hunters. In addition to being Earth’s immediate neighbor, there is the possibility of one or more exoplanets in this system. Confirming the existence of exoplanets would be one of the main reasons to go. But more than that, it would be a major accomplishment!