Washington. NASA will partner with a Pentagon research agency to develop a nuclear-powered rocket engine to send astronauts to Mars, both agencies said Tuesday.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the US space agency will collaborate with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to “develop and test advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology beginning in 2027.”
“With the help of this new technology, astronauts could travel to and from deep space faster than ever before, an important capability to prepare for human missions to Mars,” he said in a statement.
DARPA is the research and development arm of the Pentagon and has played a role in many of the innovations of the 20th century, such as the internet.
According to NASA, nuclear thermal rockets can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion and would reduce travel time, essential for an eventual mission to Mars.
In a nuclear heat engine, a fission reactor is used to generate extremely high temperatures.
Heat from the reactor is transferred to liquid propellant which is then converted to a gas, which expands through a nozzle and provides thrust.
“DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration,” said DARPA Director Stefanie Tompkins, citing the Saturn V rocket that carried the first astronauts to the Moon.
“The nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential to more efficiently and quickly transport material to the Moon and eventually people to Mars,” Tompkins said.
NASA conducted its last tests of nuclear thermal rocket engines more than 50 years ago, but abandoned the program due to budget cuts and Cold War tensions.
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