Mars (Photo: AP)
The American space agency has chosen a new concept for nuclear propulsion as part of its innovation program (NIAC) for 2023. The proposal for the new propulsion is an engine that combines thermonuclear propulsion and electric nuclear propulsion.
The scientist behind it, Prof. Ryan Goss from the University of Florida, believes that the proposed drive can bring us to Mars in only 45 days - compared to about half a year that would be required with existing means of propulsion.
If developed, the new drive will be a breakthrough and a significant accelerator in colonizing other stars, and first of course, our red neighbor.
The proposal for the new engine utilizes two existing technologies in the field of nuclear propulsion.
Thermonuclear propulsion uses a nuclear reactor to heat liquid hydrogen into plasma (a unique state of aggregation that is not solid, liquid or gas), and this is pushed through a narrow nozzle to produce jet thrust, similar to what exists in jet planes - but much, much more powerful.
NASA's development of nuclear propulsion (Photo: Ryan Gosse)
Nuclear-electric propulsion, on the other hand, uses a nuclear reactor to power an electric motor that, in turn, produces an electromagnetic field that ionizes and accelerates gas to create thrust.
Prof. Goss's new idea combines the two technologies to create a thruster with twice the performance of existing fuel rockets.
In addition, it uses a wave drive (Wave Rotor) to further compress the reacting mass, with the help of pressure created by heating the liquid hydrogen.
NASA has a long history of "flirting" with nuclear propulsion for spacecraft. Among other things, the NERVA project, an acronym for "Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application" was successfully tried, but canceled due to lack of budget, at the same time as the end of the "Apollo" program in 1973.
In the early 2000s, the space agency conducted another experiment with the feasibility of nuclear propulsion in Project Prometheus, and of course, we should mention former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz's private company Ad Astra, which completed an 88-hour experiment with the Vasimr VX-200SS, a rocket powered Plasma in 2021.
According to Ed Astra, their nuclear drive is capable of taking humans to Mars at a speed of nearly 200,000 km/h.
Can Goss' idea significantly reduce the flight time to Mars? With existing technologies, a manned journey to Mars would take between six and nine months. The meaning of reducing time Required for a flight of only 45 days (about a month and a half), it will allow shortening full missions to Mars to a time of months instead of years. And it's not just the distance from home - missions to Mars will expose astronauts to high levels of radiation that may be fatal, along with the dangerous health effects of subgravity.