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NASA and DARPA Develop Thermonuclear Rocket Engine That Could Put Humans on Mars: Reports

NASA is involved with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to use a thermonuclear rocket engine in space, according to reports.

In a press release Tuesday, NASA said the thermonuclear rocket engine could one day be used on NASA crew missions to Mars.

Concept art for a Spacecraft from Rocket to Agile Operations of the Ceiling Moon (DRACO), which will feature a thermonuclear rocket engine. Nuclear thermopropulsion technology could be used for future NASA missions to Mars.
(DARPA and NASA)

Both agencies will collaborate on the Demonstration Rocket Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program under a “non-refundable agreement.”

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The agreement, read the statement, is designed to benefit both agencies while defining roles, responsibilities, and processes that can accelerate program development.

“NASA will work with our long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as early as 2027,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “With the help of this new technology, astronauts can travel to and from deep space faster than ever before—a great ability to prepare for manned missions to Mars. Congratulations to both NASA and DARPA on this exciting investment, as we launch the future together.”

Nuclear thermal missile will allow crossing between Moon and Mars to take less time while also reducing risks to astronauts.

Longer trips require more supplies, so reducing transit time will be a key component of human missions to Mars.

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Additional benefits include increased scientific payload capacity and higher power generation for devices and communications.

Nuclear thermal rocket engines have fission reactor which generate extremely high temperatures. The engine transfers this heat into liquid fuel, which is exhausted through a nozzle that propels the spacecraft, NASA said.

NASA added that these types of engines could be three times more efficient than chemical propulsion engines.

NASA's Mars rover used the dual-camera Mastcam-Z imager to capture this image "Santa Cruz," A hill inside Jezero Crater, on April 29, 2021, the 68th Mars day, or sot, of the mission.

NASA’s Mars rover used the dual-camera Mastcam-Z imager to capture this image of “Santa Cruz,” a hill inside Jezero Crater, on April 29, 2021, Mars Day 68, or the mission’s Sol.
(Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

“NASA has a long history of collaborating with DARPA on projects that enable our special missions, such as service in space,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Milroy. “Extending our partnership to nuclear propulsion will help advance NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars.”

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As part of the agreement, NASA will lead technical development of the nuclear thermal engine while DARP will act as the contracting authority for the stage and engine, including the reactor.

DARPA will also lead the overall program, including missile system integration, procurement, approvals, security, scheduling, and more.

The goal is to be able to display the rocket in space as early as 2027.

“DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration in developing technologies to achieve our own goals, from the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon for the first time to robotic servicing and satellite refueling,” said Dr. Stephanie Tompkins, principal, DARPA. “The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security. The ability to make leaps and bounds in space technology through the DRACO thermonuclear missile program will be essential to moving materials more efficiently and quickly to the Moon and eventually people to Mars.”

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NASA said the last thermonuclear rocket engine tests conducted by the United States were conducted more than 50 years ago as part of the NASA Nuclear Engine for Rocket and Rover Applications project.