NASA to test nuclear-powered rockets so astronauts can make ultra-fast Mars trip

US space agency NASA is set to test nuclear-powered rockets to whisk astronauts to Mars at incredible speed.

Boffins say using nukes will slash the journey time from the current seven months – speeding up the on-the-ground search for alien life and boosting mission safety.

NASA has partnered with the US Government’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency – aka DARPA – to put a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space as soon as 2027.

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Scientists plan to develop a pioneering new rocket propulsion system that's far superior to the chemical-driven ones that have been used in almost a century of space travel.

A NASA spokesman said: Using a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transit time, reducing risk for astronauts. Reducing transit time is a key component for human missions to Mars as longer trips require more supplies and more robust systems.’’

Nuclear-powered engines will also increase the amount of scientific equipment rockets could transport and improve their instrumentation and communication systems.

NASA hopes to land humans on the red planet some time in the 2030s.

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Last year (2022) it successfully tested its new Artemis spacecraft ahead of plans to create a base camp on the surface of the Moon and gateway in orbit for missions on to Mars.

Artemis has a top speed of 24,581mph.

NASA cannot say precisely how much nuke rockets will shave off the 140million mile trip to the red planet.

But agency administrator Bill Nelson said it would allow spacecraft and humans to travel in deep space at record speed.

With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,’’ he said. Nuclear electric propulsion systems work more efficiently than chemical rockets while providing a low amount of thrust.

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A reactor generates electricity that positively charges gas propellants like xenon or krypton, pushing out the ions through a thruster which drives the spacecraft forward. Using low-thrust efficiently, nuclear electric propulsion systems accelerate spacecraft for extended periods.

They can power a Mars mission on a fraction of the usual amount of propellant – which is made up of fuel and an oxygen-producer that allows it to burn.

DARPA’s director Dr Stefanie Tompkins said the agreement was an extension of existing collaboration between the agencies. She said: "DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective goals from the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon for the first time to robotic servicing and refuelling of satellites".

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The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery and national security.The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and, eventually, people to Mars.’’

Nasa’s Artemis 2 mission, which will send humans around the Moon for the first time in more than half a century, is scheduled for next year (2024).

Artemis 3, which could come the following year, will land astronauts, including the first woman, on the Moon’s surface for the first time since 1972.

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Earlier this week we told how space is running out of space with up to 100 lunar missions due to be launched within the next decade.

With most pumping satellites into orbit, the gap between Earth and the Moon could become overcrowded.

There are already 2,000 active satellites orbiting Earth and 3,000 dead ones littering space

That potential overcrowding plus the global interest in the search for alien life is pushing scientists to speed up their quest to expand space travel beyond the Moon.

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