NASA will be putting more focus on developing nuclear thermal propulsion as a means to power future space rockets into deep space. Humanity’s next giant leap could be enabled by next-gen nuclear tech, according to Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Nuclear thermal propulsion is where a fission reactor heats propellants like hydrogen that are then accelerated through a nozzle that will allow a spacecraft to reach tremendous speeds.
The concept was discussed by Rex Geveden, president and CEO of BWX Technologies and also a panelist during the sixth meeting of the National Space Council on Tuesday. The Virginia-based company supplies nuclear components and fuel to the government.
According to Geveden, nuclear thermal propulsion will be efficient for both human and scientific missions and implored NASA to spend more time on it if it wishes to arrive at farther destinations in the Galaxy such as Mars.
“If we are to fulfill these objectives to establish a long-term presence on the moon and to send the first crewed mission to Mars, nuclear power is arguably the most important to enable these bold goals,” Geveden said.
Spacecraft powered by such engines could conceivably reach Mars in just three to four months instead of the estimated nine months with the traditional chemical propulsion engines.
Bridenstine has lauded the concept as well as receiving support in Congress and the White House.
“As we continue to push farther into our solar system, we’ll need innovative new propulsion systems to get us there, including nuclear power,” Vice President Mike Pence said in a March 26 speech at a National Space Council meeting in Huntsville, Alabama.
Meanwhile, Bridenstine said: “That is absolutely a game-changer for what NASA is trying to achieve.”
Particularly, NASA aims to reach Mars by the 2030s, a preliminary goal set after Mission Artemis that aims to help man and the first woman make a return to the moon’s surface by 2024.
Furthermore, Bridenstine also noted that the nuclear-powered engine will also be beneficial in preserving the physical health of the astronauts who will attempt to reach Mars.
“That gives us an opportunity to really protect life when we talk about the radiation dose when we travel between Earth and Mars,” Bridenstine said.
The NASA administrator meant to talk about the rising levels of radiation that astronauts face as they travel farther away from Earth and the amount of time they would be exposed to such radiation as they make their way to deep space, such as Mars.
Recent research suggests that the radiation dose accumulated by Mars-bound astronauts could damage their brains, affecting their moods as well as their ability to learn and remember.
Bridenstine also stressed the utility of nuclear thermal propulsion for applications closer to home. Particularly, the United States itself is preparing for a new branch of the military intended for space-related threats, which Trump calls the Space Force.
Currently, countries like China and Russia are reported to be developing space technology that attacks satellites and could potentially affect systems down on Earth.
“Both countries view the capability to attack space systems and services as part of their broader efforts to deter or defeat an adversary in combat,” Joseph Maguire, the U.S. acting Director of National Intelligence, said during the NSC meeting. “In short, the threat to the U.S. and allied space systems continues to grow unabated.”
For now, NASA seems to not be sleeping on the potential of nuclear thermal propulsion as it received funding from the Trump Administration.
In May, the House Appropriations Committee approved commerce, justice, and science (CJS) appropriations bill that offers $22.3 billion for NASA. That funding included $125 million specifically for nuclear thermal propulsion development within the agency’s space technology program.
“The bill’s investment in nuclear thermal propulsion is critical as NASA works towards the design of a flight demonstration by 2024,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.)
That renewed work in nuclear thermal propulsion is also being led by the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, which Pence praised.\
“The president and I know there’s no place on Earth better equipped to lead the world in pioneering these new propulsion technologies than Rocket City, U.S.A.”
As of the moment, however, it remains unclear how NASA will make use of nuclear thermal propulsion technology as they still heavily rely on traditional propulsion such as chemical and solar despite the advantages of nuclear. That is if they are able to overcome technical and regulatory challenges that nuclear carries.