Home News Lockheed Martin Chosen by NASA to Construct Nuclear Rocket for Future Mars Missions

Lockheed Martin Chosen by NASA to Construct Nuclear Rocket for Future Mars Missions

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Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP)

NASA, in conjunction with DARPA, has selected aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin for the design and creation of a spacecraft outfitted with a nuclear thermal rocket engine. The decision, unveiled in January, is part of an ambitious program known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), wherein BWX Technologies will supply the reactor and fuel. The goal is to display the technology by 2027, potentially paving the way for Mars expeditions.

Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) possesses several benefits compared to traditional chemically propelled rockets. Primarily, it’s two to five times more efficient, enabling vessels to achieve higher speeds, cover longer distances, and maneuver more deftly. Additionally, its lower propellant requirements free up space for storing vital scientific gear and other crucial items. This, along with the greater contingency options for emergency situations due to the ability to alter the spacecraft’s trajectory more easily, makes NTP a potentially ideal mode of travel to Mars.

“Nuclear thermal propulsion systems, with their enhanced power and efficiency, can facilitate quicker transit times between destinations,” commented Kirk Shireman, VP of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin. “For human missions to Mars, minimizing transit time is crucial to reduce the crew’s exposure to radiation.”

The NTP system will rely on a nuclear reactor to swiftly heat hydrogen propellant to extremely high temperatures. The gas, subsequently funneled through the engine’s nozzle, produces the vessel’s thrust. BWX explained today, “This NTP system is designed for high safety and reliability, utilizing High Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) fuel to rapidly heat a cryogenic gas like liquid hydrogen. As the gas is heated and expands, it creates thrust, making the spacecraft move more efficiently than typical chemical combustion engines.”

In order to alleviate concerns about radioactive leaks impacting Earth’s atmosphere, NASA and DARPA plan to activate the reactor only once the spacecraft has achieved a “nuclear safe orbit,” where potential accidents would happen beyond the zone that could harm Earth. The agencies aim to demonstrate a nuclear spacecraft by 2027, which will be launched from a conventional rocket until it reaches a suitable location above low earth orbit.

Nuclear reactors are also anticipated to be crucial in powering future Martian settlements, with NASA already testing compact and portable versions of the technology as early as 2018.

Before NTP is employed for the inaugural human journey to Mars, it might be used for significantly shorter voyages. Nuclear-powered spacecraft could streamline the transportation of materials to the Moon. “A safe, reusable nuclear tug spacecraft would revolutionize cislunar operations,” noted Shireman. “Thanks to its speed, agility, and maneuverability, nuclear thermal propulsion has numerous potential applications in national security for cislunar space.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP)

Who has been selected to build the nuclear rocket for future Mars missions?

NASA and DARPA have selected aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin to build the spacecraft with a nuclear thermal rocket engine.

What is the goal of the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) initiative?

The DRACO initiative aims to showcase nuclear thermal propulsion technology by 2027 with an eye toward future Mars missions.

What are the advantages of Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) over chemically propelled rockets?

NTP is two to five times more efficient, enabling ships to travel faster, farther and with greater agility. It requires less propellant, leaving more room on the spaceship for storing scientific equipment and other essentials, and provides more options for emergency scenarios.

What is the propulsion method used in the nuclear rocket?

The NTP system uses a nuclear reactor to heat hydrogen propellant rapidly to extremely high temperatures. The heated gas is funneled through the engine’s nozzle, creating the ship’s thrust.

How will the safety concerns regarding radioactive leaks be addressed?

NASA and DARPA plan not to power up the reactor until the ship has reached a “nuclear safe orbit,” where any accidents would occur outside the zone where it could affect Earth.

What are potential applications of the nuclear thermal propulsion before its use for Mars missions?

Before propelling the first humans to Mars, the NTP could find use on much shorter flights, such as making transporting material to the Moon more efficient.

More about Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP)

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StarGazer101 July 27, 2023 - 5:12 pm

2027 can’t come fast enough, so excited to see the first nuclear rocket demonstration.

RocketJunkie July 27, 2023 - 5:16 pm

2-5 times more efficient than chemical rockets!! that’s just insane, can’t wait to see this in action.

MarsManiac July 27, 2023 - 7:35 pm

nuclear propulsion, fancy stuff there…wonder if we’ll actually see humans on Mars in our lifetime.

CosmoCarl July 28, 2023 - 2:00 am

Lockheed, NASA, DARPA and BWX…now that’s what i call a dream team. Mars isn’t ready for us!

AstroNerd July 28, 2023 - 3:49 am

If Lockheed can pull this off, it’s gonna be game changer for space exploration, period.

SkepticalSally July 28, 2023 - 5:32 am

Sounds risky to me. What if something goes wrong with the reactor? hope they got this figured out…


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