NASA on Tuesday announced a partnership with the Pentagon to develop a nuclear-powered rocket capable of sending humans to Mars.
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Space agency chief Bill Nelson said he is working with US military research agency Darpa to “develop and test advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as early as 2027.”
“Using this technology, astronauts could travel in and out of space faster than ever before,” he said in a statement.
Darpa, the scientific arm of the US Army, is the origin of many 20th-century innovations, including the Internet.
According to NASA, a nuclear-powered thermal rocket could be three to four times more efficient than conventionally fueled rockets and reduce travel time, a key ingredient in getting to the Red Planet.
In a thermal nuclear missile, a nuclear fission reactor generates very high temperatures.
This heat is transferred to a liquid propellant, turned into gas and – like a conventional rocket – expelled through a nozzle to generate thrust.
“DARPA and NASA have a long history of successful collaboration,” said military research agency director Stefanie Tompkins, citing as an example the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo missions to the moon.
The development of this new type of launch vehicle “will be critical to getting equipment to the moon and then people to Mars faster and more efficiently,” she added.
NASA conducted tests of a nuclear missile more than 50 years ago, but the project was halted due to budget cuts and Cold War tensions.