NASA to test nuclear reactor-powered spacecraft by 2027

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NASA to test nuclear reactor-powered spacecraft by 2027

The astronaut Megan McArthur is seen above the NASA logo on June 7, 2022 in the Webb Auditorium at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. The space agency s chief said on Tuesday that the United States plans to test a spacecraft engine powered by nuclear fission by 2027 as part of a long-term NASA effort to demonstrate more efficient methods of propelling astronauts to Mars in the future.

NASA will partner with the US military's research and development agency, DARPA, to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion engine and launch it to space in 2027, Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, said at a conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

The United States space agency has studied the concept of nuclear thermal propulsion for decades, which brings heat from a nuclear fission reactor to a hydrogen propellant in order to provide a thrust believed to be more efficient than traditional chemical-based rocket engines.

NASA officials view nuclear thermal propulsion as a crucial factor in the decision to send humans beyond the moon and deeper into space. Engineers say that a trip to Mars from Earth could take about four months instead of nine months with a conventional, chemically powered engine.

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That would reduce the time astronauts would be exposed to deep space radiation and require fewer supplies, such as food and other cargo, during a trip to Mars.

If we have swifter trips for humans, we are safer trips, NASA deputy administrator and former astronaut Pam Melroy said Tuesday.

The 2020 demonstration, part of an existing DARPA research program that NASA is now joining, could inform the ambitions of the US Space Force, which has envisioned deploying nuclear reactor-powered spacecraft capable of moving other satellites orbiting near the moon, DARPA and NASA officials said.

In 2021, DARPA grants funds to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Jeff Bezos' space company Blue Origin to study designs of nuclear reactors and spacecraft. The agency will choose a company to build the nuclear spacecraft for the 2027 demonstration by March, the program's manager Tabitha Dodson said in an interview.

The budget for the joint NASA-DARPA effort is $110 million for fiscal year 2023 and is expected to be hundreds of millions of dollars more by 2027.