NASA Is Bringing Back Nuclear Tech to Get Rockets to Mars
A great warthog once said that you gotta put your behind in your past. It looks like the folks at NASA missed that advice from The Lion King, because according to reports, they are turning to previously discontinued nuclear technology in an attempt to get rockets to Mars in the next 20 years. Did the atomic rockets work in the 1970s? Yes. Does that mean that they are a good idea now? Well...
It's not exactly like NASA pulled 50-year-old rockets out of storage, dusted them off, and are getting to launch them into space. The agency partnered with a Virginia-based company called BWXT Nuclear Energy on an $18.8 million contract to update and refine the nuclear thermal propulsion (NPT) tech used during the Cold War era. The project will reduce the size of the rockets "drastically," making them capable of faster travel so that we can reach red planet sooner.
"As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond," said Sonny Mitchell, NPT project manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. "We're excited to be working on technologies that could open up deep space for human exploration."
NASA says that NPT rockets have twice the propulsion efficiency of the Space Shuttle's main engine, but one question you might be asking is: how does it work? Inside of a NPT rocket, liquid hydrogen is heated by uranium or deuterium reactions inside of a reactor. The reaction produces plasma (ionized hydrogen gas) that is directed through a nozzle, creating thrust.
Safety is also a big question when talking about nuclear reactions and uranium. According to Futurism ,BWXT and NASA plan to use low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is both safer and cheaper than using uranium 235.