NASA is one of the top space agencies working towards sending humans to Mars before the end of the next decade. The space agency has successfully sent several rovers to Mars using its chemical propulsion systems. However, NASA is searching for a means to reach mars within a shorter period. The American Space Agency recently selected a nuclear propulsion concept for Phase I development to pursue its future goals of reaching Mars faster with more sophisticated rocket technologies.
This nuclear propulsion is part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for 2023. What is nuclear propulsion technology all about? Will NASA achieve its goal of reaching Mars within 45 days using this propulsion concept? Continue reading to find out.
What this New nuclear propulsion concept is all about
Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) is a unique and preferable propulsion technology that will be specially built for manned missions across the solar system and beyond. NASA is intending to make such propulsion technology available for a future crewed mission to Mars and other celestial bodies in the solar system.
“The state-of-the-art NTP cycle is based on solid core Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) class technology that is envisioned to provide a specific impulse (Isp) of 900 seconds doubling chemical rocket performance (450 seconds),” NASA wrote in a blog post describing the sophistication of the propulsion technology. “Even with this impressive increase, the NTP NERVA designs still have issues providing adequate initial to final mass fractions for high DeltaV missions.”
NASA revealed that the propulsion technology will be built as a new type of bimodal nuclear propulsion system that will use a wave rotor topping cycle for its operation. Prof. Ryan Gosse from the University of Florida is the brain behind this futuristic concept.
Scientist strongly believes that the sophistication of the nuclear propulsion system could significantly reduce the travel duration of missions to Mars to about 45 days. If we can attain such a milestone, it implies that the time required for a crewed mission to Mars will reduce to less than two months. Shorter time travel to Mars simply means a safer mission for the astronauts.
Can we possibly use nuclear propulsion for future crewed missions Throughout the Solar System?
Nuclear propulsion is gradually gaining attention in the world of technology. If we must explore the solar system the way we always desired, then we must consider other propulsion systems that are more sophisticated than chemical propulsion. Among all the propulsion technologies available, scientists and engineers are considering nuclear propulsion as it stands to be the best option for now.
NASA purposely selected nuclear propulsion as one of the 14 technologies for the NIAC Phase I development because of its sophistication. The new concept titled “Bimodal NTP/NEP with a Wave Rotor Topping Cycle” has already received a grant of about $12,500 for proper research and development. NASA’s desire for nuclear propulsion began decades ago.
The American space agency successfully tested the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) concepts many years ago. However, this concept was defunded in 1973 because of several reasons. In the early 2000s, NASA concluded other tests on nuclear propulsion concept technologies with project Prometheus.
Hence, the space agency has a great interest in nuclear propulsion technologies. We should be expecting greater success from its plans in developing this new propulsion concept.
What you should know about NASA’s new propulsion concept
NASA’s new nuclear propulsion concept received the attention it deserves as it stands the chances of reducing our travel time to Mars. The concept involves two propulsion systems with different operating mechanisms. The first system is Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) which will use the nuclear reactor to heat the liquid hydrogen propellant and convert it into plasma before channeling the outcome via a nozzle to produce thrust.
The second is Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NEP) which will use a nuclear reactor to energize a Hall-Effect thrust (ion engine) with electricity. The process will make an electromagnetic field to be generated which will ionize and accelerate an inert gas to produce thrust.
But how practically possible are these concepts? Prof. Ryan Gosse, who introduces this concept has already seen the possibilities of humans achieving tremendous success with the new nuclear propulsion system. The scientist combines both NTP and NEP alongside his new concept to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. He revealed that the bimodal design of the solid-core NERVA reactor will generate a specific impulse (LSP) of about 900 seconds.
With this range, nuclear propulsion technology will outperform today’s chemical rockets by a great margin. The scientists also suggested deploying a Wave Rotor (WR) to compress the reaction mass with the pressure produced by the reactor’s heating of the liquid hydrogen fuel. Gosse concluded that this new propulsion rocket could generate thrust that could be compared to NERVA NTP. However, this new concept will produce a higher LSP of about 1400 to 2000 seconds. When the NTP is combined with NEP, it should generate higher thrust.
Could this new nuclear propulsion concept benefit the astronauts?
Based on our current technology, it will take humans about six to nine months to land on Mars following the shortest windows. However, Gosse’s propulsion concept is working towards reducing the travel duration to about 45 days. This implies that humans will land on Mars in less than two months following Gosse’s concept.
If NASA successfully accomplishes Gosse’s concept and deploys it in rockets, astronauts traveling to Mars in the future will greatly benefit from this technology. Longer space flights to Mars will expose astronauts to high levels of radiation which could expose them to cancer and even death.
Since we are yet to build spacecraft with artificial gravity, long space missions will also have effects of microgravity on the crew. The impact of microgravity on the astronauts could greatly affect their performance when they finally land on the red planet. Gosse’s concept will surely reduce some of these challenges and enable our astronauts to enjoy their space mission to the red planet.
Replacing chemical rocket technology with nuclear propulsion will surely revolutionize space exploration and put humans on the frontline of reaching distanced space worlds within a shorter duration. However, more efforts are still required to ensure that we successfully bring this technology to life before commencing on the crewed mission to Mars. NASA is already accomplishing its Artemis space mission. Maybe reaching Mars will be the agency’s next goal. What do you think about this new propulsion concept?