As NASA pursues innovative, cost-effective alternatives to conventional propulsion technologies to forge new paths into the solar system, researchers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, say nuclear thermal propulsion technologies are more promising than ever, and have contracted with BWXT Nuclear Energy, Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia, to further advance and refine those concepts.
Part of NASA's Game Changing Development Program, the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) project could indeed significantly change space travel, largely due to its ability to accelerate a large amount of propellant out of the back of a rocket at very high speeds, resulting in a highly efficient, high-thrust engine. In comparison, a nuclear thermal rocket has double the propulsion efficiency of the Space Shuttle main engine, one of the hardest-working standard chemical engines of the past 40 years. That capability makes nuclear thermal propulsion ideal for delivering large, automated payloads to distant worlds.
"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, Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project manager at Marshall. "We're excited to be working on technologies that could open up deep space for human exploration."
An NTP system can cut the voyage time to Mars from six months to four and safely deliver human explorers by reducing their exposure to radiation. That also could reduce the vehicle mass, enabling deep space missions to haul more payload.
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator (NTREES), https://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/news/news/releases/2014/ntrees.html