NASA plans to send nuclear rockets to the Moon and Mars

The ambition to reach Mars, going through the Moon before, could be achieved with a technology that sounds extravagant: NASA’s nuclear rockets.

The arrival on Mars would be imminent if the holders offered by the aerospace sector were attended to. Not only NASA but also Elon Musk SpaceX’s company, as well as other space agencies, have shown interest in this feat. The truth is that there is a lot of noise around this goal, but few concrete projects.

NASA is in all probability the best placed organism to undertake the arrival to the red planet. However, today the strategy remains unclear. Until now, no neophyte in the field – but with a certain fondness for the subject – had the idea that the mode of transport to Mars would not be propelled by hydrogen. I could be wrong.

Within NASA, the NTREES project (Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Enviromental Simulator) explores the possibility of using nuclear fission reactors as a rocket propellant. The result would be NASA’s nuclear rockets, whose origins date back to the late 1950s. At that time a nuclear weapon was first detonated in a rocket.

In 1961 a nuclear rocket was used to take the first American into space. The NTREES project studies through simulation how materials react to extreme heat. The objective is to find the formula so that a small-scale nuclear fission reaction does not damage the structure of the rocket.

Curiosity Marte metano

Curiosity Mars methane

In reality, a nuclear rocket is much more efficient than one powered by hydrogen. Some technical opinion within NASA leans more towards this option to go to Mars. And it is that with a nuclear rocket the time to reach the red planet would be reduced by half.

The potential of nuclear rockets

Despite being a controversial means of space transport, nuclear rockets have some very appreciated advantages. For example, the estimated flight time in one of these vehicles until reaching Mars would be reduced to 100 days. This is key, because the longer the trip increases the difficulties of the mission. And Mars is far, much more than the Moon. To get an idea, our satellite is 384,000 kilometers away. The red planet, at its closest moment, is 59 million kilometers away.

But the fission process would also bring other advantages on Mars. NASA has worked on the hypothesis of establishing a nuclear reactor on the planet. In this way, future colonies on the Martian surface could be supplied with energy.

Images: NASA

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