NASA and Pentagon Join Forces to Develop Nuclear-Powered Rocket Engine for Space Exploration

Lockheed Martin has been awarded a contract to construct a nuclea thermal rocket engine, a highly sought-after technology by both NASA and the Pentagon. This engine has the potential to significantly accelerate space travel and aid in human missions to Mars. The contract, issued by NASA and DARPA, requires Lockheed Martin to conduct the first test flight of the engine by 2027. If all milestones are met, Lockheed Martin will receive approximately $500 million, split equally between NASA and DARPA.

NASA is particularly interested in nuclear thermal power for Mars missions due to the lengthy travel time and potential radiation exposure associated with chemically fueled rockets. The current estimated travel time to Mars is around seven months, which could have negative impacts on astronauts' mental health and crew dynamics. The distance between Earth and Mars is also a significant challenge, as the two planets are only on the same side of the sun every 26 months. Even at their closest points, a spacecraft aiming for Mars would need to follow a long elliptical orbit totaling hundreds of millions of miles.

Kirk Shireman, Lockheed Martin's vice president of lunar exploration campaigns, emphasized the need for more efficient propulsion systems to further explore space. He believes that higher thrust propulsion is crucial and that advancements in this area are imminent.

Nuclear propulsion is considered a key capability in NASA's plan to send astronauts to Mars. It would enable faster trips to the Red Planet, making missions less complex and safer for the crew. Additionally, nuclear-powered rockets require significantly less propellant than chemical rockets, allowing for more scientific equipment to be carried on missions.

The Pentagon is also interested in more efficient fuel sources for space travel, particularly for building satellites that can maneuver in space, making them harder for adversaries to target. DARPA stated that this technology would facilitate moving larger payloads into cislunar space, the volume of space between the Earth and the moon, which would require a significant advancement in propulsion technology.

Nuclear thermal power utilizes a fission-based nuclear reactor to heat hydrogen to extremely high temperatures. The heated gas is then expelled through an engine nozzle to create thrust. For safety reasons, the reactor will only be activated once the spacecraft has reached a safe orbit.

During a briefing, officials mentioned that the test engine would be launched from Cape Canaveral using either SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket or the United Launch Alliance's Vulcan-Centaur rocket, both of which currently hold national security launch contracts. Lockheed Martin is collaborating with BMX Technologies to develop the reactor and produce the fuel.

Saif Al-Hassan
By : Saif Al-Hassan
‏Saif Al-Hassan is professional journalist and editor scine 2000, graduated from the University of Damascus , Egypt in the Department of Journalism I write in several fields work - entertainment - sports - health - science ‏

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