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NASA and Pentagon make serious move toward space-based nuclear propulsion

July 27, 2023
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NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense are joining forces to launch a nuclear-powered rocket engine into space by 2027, aiming to develop a more fuel-efficient system for space travel, which could revolutionize journeys to places like Mars. The project involves a significant investment and has selected Lockheed Martin to help construct the experimental engine.

The Launch of a Nuclear-Powered Rocket: NASA and the US Department of Defense have teamed up to launch a nuclear-powered rocket by 2027.
  • The plan is to develop a new type of propulsion system for long-distance space travel.
  • The mission will cost about $300 million.
  • The aim is to use this system for future missions to Mars.

  • Why Nuclear Power for Space Travel: Traditional chemical propulsion systems use too much fuel for long-distance space travel.
  • Nuclear thermal propulsion is a more efficient alternative.
  • This technology has been considered since the era of Wernher von Braun, a key figure in the development of rocket technology.
  • A nuclear reactor can heat a propellant (likely liquid hydrogen) quickly, creating the thrust needed for propulsion.

  • Revival of Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Technology: After many years of being overlooked, nuclear thermal propulsion is gaining renewed interest.
  • In 2020, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency showed interest in testing a nuclear thermal propulsion system.
  • This led to the DRACO program, which aims to improve the efficiency of moving payloads in space.
  • NASA joined the program to develop similar technology for Mars exploration.

  • Building the Nuclear-Powered Rocket: NASA and DARPA have selected Lockheed Martin to build the experimental nuclear thermal reactor vehicle (X-NTRV).
  • Lockheed Martin will work with BWX Technologies, who will develop the nuclear reactor and the fuel.
  • NASA will lead the development of the nuclear engine, while DARPA will handle regulatory requirements, operations, and safety analyses.
  • The reactor will launch in a "cold" state and will only be activated once it's in a safe orbit.

  • Challenges and Expectations: The team faces several challenges and uncertainties, including reactor performance in zero gravity and the management of liquid hydrogen.
  • Liquid hydrogen, the propellant, needs to be stored at an ultra-cold state for a long duration.
  • There are also plans for a potential robotic refueling, which could extend the mission.
  • The team anticipates learning enough to develop an operational engine for future missions.

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