NASA is interested in using a low-enriched uranium nuclear reactor to travel to Mars. They believe this would enable them to cut the travel time to Mars from 8 months to two and a half months.
Since January NASA has been working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a nuclear propulsion rocket.
The plan is to take the flame from fission to turn liquid propellant into a gas, then funnel through a nozzle to power the spacecraft. According to NASA, this type of propulsion creates much more thrust, at least three times more efficient than a chemical rocket. Therefore, less fuel is onboard, allowing the astronauts to carry more equipment for their exploration and experiments.
“It can completely change how people think about what is possible in space; what you can carry, how quickly you can get there,” DARPA Director Stefanie Tompkins said. “You have much more flexibility in getting where you want, when you want.”
NASA’s scientists say the technology is safe because the reactor will use low-enriched uranium rather than the highly enriched, weapons grade uranium.
Using a nuclear rocket does more than reduce the time of travel to the Red Planet, it also reduces cosmic radiation exposure for the astronauts, allows them more time on Martian-soil, conduct exploration and experiments, and bring back more stuff since they wouldn’t have to haul around a ton of fuel.
The European Space Agency is also betting on nuclear to power its ambitions for deep space research.