Perspective: NASA is working with DARPA to develop a new nuclear fission engine for the next generation of spacecraft. The space agency wants to test a prototype by 2027 so that the technology can be used for future human missions to deep space and Mars.
NASA and DARPA are playing with atoms and want to show the world the results. The US Defense Research and Development Agency will work with a contractor company to be selected in the coming weeks, with a total expected budget of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Two US agencies want to develop and test a spacecraft engine based on nuclear fission, technology that NASA has used for decades to power the most daring exploration missions, such as the Voyager twin probes and the Martian science lab. These were all unmanned missions; using nuclear power for a crewed mission is still uncharted territory.
NASA has been studying nuclear propulsion for space exploration for decades, portraying nuclear fission as a potential alternative to conventional chemical-based rocket propulsion. Nuclear fission, which will produce thermal energy to convert hydrogen fuel into the thrust needed to propel a spacecraft, is much more efficient than traditional fuels.
NASA engineers say that with this hypothetical nuclear propulsion, a human journey from Earth to Mars would take four months instead of the estimated nine months required for a chemical propulsion propulsion. Shorter journeys would greatly reduce the time that astronauts would be exposed to dangerous deep space radiation, and would also require fewer supplies and food.
According to Pam Melroy, Associate Administrator of NASA and former astronaut, “if we have faster travel for humans, it will be safer.” DARPA is already working on a nuclear space program, and NASA is now getting involved as well. For fiscal year 2023 alone, the space agency will provide a budget of $110 million.
Two years ago, DARPA awarded funds to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin to develop a nuclear reactor for the spacecraft. In March, the US agency will select a company that will be entrusted with the production of said reactor. Instead of space exploration, DARPA wants to use a new engine to move satellites around the moon as part of the US Space Forces initiative.