NASA’s Study recommends accelerating the development of the space nuclear propulsion

The National Academies Committee report concluded that NASA needs to promote ‘aggressive’ production of space nuclear propulsion programs if the agency hopes to utilize them for the human missions’ flights to Mars in the next twenty years. A NASA-sponsored Feb. 12 report by the National Academies said that both approaches to nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) as well as nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) would resolve major obstacles to their use in the national human mission to Mars in the year 2039. Such systems could reduce the travel time of voyages to Mars.

In a quote, Bobby Braun, who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a director in charge of planetary science as well as co-chair of the committee which wrote the paper, stated, “Space nuclear propulsion technologies showed the tremendous potential to accelerate human exploration of the Mars.” “However, if NASA, as well as its partners, are to conclude this mission within the specified timeline, significant improvement in the intensity of technology growth and development is needed.” Of the two innovations, the study on NTP, in which a nuclear reactor generates heat a fuel like liquid hydrogen to produce thrust, was more positive. The study concluded, “An aggressive system could build an NTP system able to execute the baseline project in the year 2039.”

Far beyond the nuclear reactor itself, this technology, however, faces many challenges. They entail having the ability to heat the propellant within a minute to the appropriate temperature of about 2,700 kelvins and getting the device up to working temperature.  A shortage of the ground-based test sites for NTP systems and problems with maintaining liquid hydrogen for the length of a mission are other obstacles.

To operate with the megawatt-class reactors, NEP, where the nuclear reactor produces electricity for electric thrusters, requires to step up its power and thermal management platforms to levels well beyond what has been seen to date. However, the study acknowledged that little advancement had been achieved since the year 2005 on the related technologies as well as the progress that has been undertaken has been restricted to the lower-power systems.

“It is unclear whether even an aggressive plan would be able to create a NEP system sufficient of implementing the baseline mission in the year 2039 as a consequence of decreased as well as intermittent expenditure over the last several decades,” the study concluded. Nonetheless, NASA proposed “invigorating the development of technology” for NEP systems. NASA has been trying to align conflicting nuclear energy and propulsion production goals. The agency has been focusing on the surface fission power systems, like Kilopower, in addition to the NTP as well as NEP, which could offer power on the surface of the moon or even Mars. As the system has nearer-term implications for Artemis lunar exploration project, which does not require nuclear propulsion, the agency has attempted to progress work on the Kilopower.