NASA and DARPA have agreed to develop and test a nuclear rocket engine in space as soon as 2027.
Using a nuclear reactor as its power source, it would outperform chemical rockets and greatly reduce the time for the first crewed Mars mission.
NASA last made a serious attempt to develop a nuclear rocket in the 1960s with its Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects, but these were abandoned as the Apollo Moon-landing project began to wind down after 1964.
The latest endeavor is the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations program, which is tasked with developing a nuclear propulsion system that is capable of sending a mission to Mars and also to provide the US Space Force with a means of getting to the Moon and moving about cislunar space with large payloads at very short notice.
By using a nuclear thermal engine to heat a propellant to extremely high temperatures to generate thrust, a rocket could have over three times the efficiency of a conventional chemical-fueled one, which would reduce transit times and increase payload potential.
In the new NASA/DARPA partnership, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will lead development of the nuclear engine, which will be integrated into the DARPA spacecraft in the form of an upper stage that will only operate in space.
“With this collaboration, we will leverage our expertise gained from many previous space nuclear power and propulsion projects,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for STMD. “Recent aerospace materials and engineering advancements are enabling a new era for space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement toward establishing a space transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy.”