Mars travel to be cut to 45 days with nuclear propulsion technology

Travel to Mars could be dramatically cut to only 45 days within a decade if plans unveiled by NASA and the US Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) come to fruition.

Both parties have contracted Lockheed Martin to design, build, and test nuclear thermal rocket technology for the shorter, faster trip to Mars.

The rocket, which contractors expect to start testing in space as soon as 2027, is also expected to operate with twice the efficiency as conventional chemical rockets, which combine fuel and an oxidizer for combustion power.

“Working with DARPA and companies across the commercial space industry will enable us to accelerate the technology development we need to send humans to Mars,” Pam Melroy, NASA deputy administrator, said. “This demonstration will be a crucial step in meeting our Moon-to-Mars objectives for crew transportation into deep space.”

Lockheed Martin will lead spacecraft design, integration, and testing of the roughly $500 million project, and BWX Technologies will design and build the nuclear fission reactor to power the engine.

A nuclear thermal rocket could achieve high thrust and is expected to be up to three times more efficient than existing techology. This means that instead of the seven month-minimum it now takes to travel to Mars, a nuclear-powered trip would only take 45 days. Going to Mars in 45 days isn’t the only benefit, as NASA is also looking for an efficient Earth-to-Moon connection.

“In order for our country, for our species, to further explore space, we need changes in more efficient propulsion,” Kirk Shireman, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for lunar exploration campaign, said in a press conference. “Higher thrust propulsion is really, really important. And I think we’re on the cusp of that here.”

The tie-up with Lockheed follows last year’s announcement by NASA and the US Department of Energy (DOE) of a range of contracts for the creation of nuclear power systems that will power a decade of exploration on the surface of the moon.

The two agencies selected three design concept proposals for a fission surface power system design that could be ready to launch by the end of the decade for a demonstration on the Moon. This technology would be designed and created to benefit future exploration under the Artemis umbrella.

NASA said it continues to work with companies to address the challenges of living in space, such as using existing resources, options for trash disposal and more:

“Missions to the Moon are about 1,000 times farther from Earth than missions to the International Space Station, requiring systems that can reliably operate far from home, support the needs of human life, and still be light enough to launch. These technologies will become increasingly more important for the 34 million mile trip to Mars.”

NASA added: “Exploration of the Moon and Mars is intertwined. The Moon provides an opportunity to test new tools, instruments and equipment that could be used on Mars, including human habitats, life support systems, and technologies and practices that could help us build self-sustaining outposts away from Earth. Living on the Gateway for months at a time also will allow researchers to understand how the human body responds in a true deep space environment before committing to the years-long journey to Mars.”