A NASA-led team will develop a nuclear engine to take humans to Mars

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A nuclear engine to move through space is a dream that NASA has had for a long time. In the years of maximum prosperity, as part of the Apollo program, an operational prototype was built. Finally, after several years of development, lack of budget closed the project. Now, in collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the idea is being revisited.

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The DRACO program was born in the military agency as a way to quickly and cheaper transport elements in the lunar environment and to Earth orbit. While in January of this year the space agency joined the program, it announced that it was doing so with its sights set on taking humans to Mars. Today the news It is in the fact that this program has awarded the design to the companies Lockheed Martin and BWXT. The second is in charge of building the nuclear reactor that uses the engine and providing the uranium.

This would be of the HALEU type, a new fuel for fission reactors with a substantial increase in enrichment. In the current ones it is in a 5% that would arrive until 20%. This improves efficiency, and it is also recycled fuel, that is, instead of going to deep geological storage, it is processed and used again.

The reaction mass (what is propelled backwards to generate thrust in a rocket engine) it would be hydrogen, according to statements from the companies. It is hoped that the ship can be refueled at some point to study the long-term behavior of the experiment, although it will never have a real application.

It has not been revealed what the total cost of the project is. NASA contributes 300 million dollars and DARPA another 199. To which is added that each of the companies will put money out of their own pockets into the development.

No thrust data has been revealed, but the specific impulse objective is to 700 seconds. It is far from the theoretical limit of 950 that this technology allows. Even so, it is much higher than the 465.5 developed by an RL-10, the maximum that chemical technology currently allows. Unfortunately, this jump will not allow travel to Mars in 45 days, as published at the beginning of the year.

The first test is expected in 2027 and its launch will be entrusted to a ULA Vulcan if SpaceX does not certify its rockets for nuclear loads.

Martin Morala Andres