The United States plans to test a spacecraft engine powered by nuclear fission in 2027. The United States Space Agency NASA says the project is part of a long-term effort to demonstrate more efficient methods of propelling astronauts to Mars in the future. “NASA will work with the United States military research and development agency, DARPA, to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion engine and launch it into space in 2027,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at a conference at National Harbor , Maryland, Tuesday, January 1. 24. , 2023 .
NASA has for decades studied the concept of nuclear thermal propulsion which introduces the heat of a nuclear fission reactor into a hydrogen propellant to provide propulsion that is thought to be much more efficient than traditional chemical-based rocket engines.
NASA officials consider nuclear thermal propulsion essential for sending humans to places other than the Moon and further out into space. As the engineers note, a trip to Mars from Earth using this technology could take about four months, instead of nine months with conventional chemical engines. That calculation would substantially reduce the time astronauts are exposed to space radiation. It will also require fewer supplies, such as food and other cargo, during a trip to Mars. “If we have faster travel for humans, it’s safer travel,” NASA Deputy Administrator and former astronaut Pam Melroy said on Tuesday, January 24, 2023.
The demonstration scheduled for 2027 is part of the DARPA (United States Agency for Defense Advanced Research Projects) research program in which NASA is now participating. The project could also shed light on the ambitions of the US Space Force, which, according to authorities, envisages deploying a nuclear reactor-powered spacecraft capable of propelling other satellites in near-moon orbits.
DARPA in 2021 is funding General Atomics, aerospace company Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin to study nuclear reactor and spacecraft designs. Program manager Tabitha Dodson in an interview said around March 2022, the agency will select a company to build a nuclear spacecraft for the 2027 demonstration.
The joint budget of the NASA-DARPA effort is $110 million for fiscal year 2023 and is expected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars more through 2027.