An illustration of a nuclear rocket for Mars. Credits: DARPA.

NASA is developing a nuclear-powered rocket for space

Is the future of space travel nuclear?


NASA and the U.S. military have announced their collaboration with defense contractor Lockheed Martin to create a nuclear-powered rocket. The technology is being eyed for future Mars missions. The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program is slated to possibly launch by 2027, according to officials during a recent call.

Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) systems promise to slash travel times, enhance fuel efficiency, and require less propellant. This means future spacecraft could carry larger payloads than what is currently possible with today’s top-tier chemical rockets.


How NTP Works

In DRACO’s case, NTP operates by circulating a liquid propellant—cryogenic hydrogen—through a reactor core where uranium atoms are split apart via fission. The procedure superheats the propellant, transforming it into gas, which is then channeled through a nozzle to generate thrust.


Nuclear: The Future of Space Travel?

“Nuclear thermal propulsion systems can provide faster transit times between destinations,” explained Kirk Shireman, Vice President of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin Space. “Decreasing transit time is crucial for human missions to Mars, as it would reduce the crew’s exposure to radiation.”

BWX Technologies is designated to develop the nuclear reactor and propellant for the project. For safety reasons, DRACO’s reactor won’t be activated until the spacecraft has reached a high orbit. Shireman stated that this technology could potentially “revolutionize” future missions to the Moon, where NASA plans to establish long-term habitats under the Artemis program.

NASA’s last experiments with nuclear thermal rocket engines took place over 50 years ago. The program was later abandoned due to budget constraints and Cold War tensions.


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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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