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Nuclear-Powered Rockets Make A Return As NASA Signs $18M Deal To Reach Mars

DIVYIA ASTHANA | 0
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| February 16 , 2018 , 15:05 IST

Nuclear-powered rockets, a concept that was tested and last used in the 1970s, are making a return as global superpowers are making a race to Mars, and looking for ways to overtake others attempting to reach the red planet.

US space agency NASA last year signed an $18.8 million deal with BWXT Nuclear Energy Inc to design a reactor and fuel to use in a nuclear-thermal propulsion engine for deep-space travel.

While conventional rockets burn fuel to create thrust, atomic-powered engines use a reactor to heat fuel which expands through a nozzle and propels the craft. Rockets using atomic-powered engines would double the fuel efficiency of any voyage to Mars as well as reduce the travel time to under 4 months, which is less than half the time the last unmanned voyage to Mars in 2011 took.

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In addition, apart from fuel and time efficiency, the atomic-powered engines would allow spaceships of considerably small size to make the voyage to Mars.

However, the US is not the only global superpower that is considering the use of nuclear rockets to reach Mars.

Russia's Rosatom Corp, this year said that it has plans to test a prototype of nuclear spacecraft engine that could reach Mars. Meanwhile, Russia has already launched more than 30 fission reactors into space, the World Nuclear Association said.

China state media has also announced plans to use atomic-powered shuttles in its space exploration programmes.

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Apart from national governments, in the private sector, Tesla-founder Elon Musk is also working on his own Mars programme under his company SpaceX, which is developing an engine powered by oxygen and methane.

Atomic power would come in useful even after astronauts reach Mars. NASA is working with the US Department of Energy to develop 'Kilopower' a space-ready nuclear fission reactor that would be capable of providing10 kilowatts of power.

The first rocket to be test-fired using thermal nuclear propulsion 'KIWI' was launched in 1959 but was not intended for flight, rather, for testing the new engine process. The core consisted of a stack of uncoated oxide plates onto which hydrogen was dumped, generating 70 MW and an exhaust temperature of 2683 K. The nuclear thermal rocket programme was eventually cancelled in 1972 as the need for a such a rocket, without a manned mission to Mars, was unclear.

MIGHTY BOMBER

What is the use of Mars exploration ? Has anyone asked this question after 2014 in India. We have digital India, startup India, standup India, swachh India, and all sorts of government programmes that produce NOTHING substantial. Why don't we have GoToMars India ? Why Indian Space Research Organisation limited to satellite launches ?

MIGHTY BOMBER

What is the use of Mars exploration ? Has anyone asked this question after 2014 in India. We have digital India, startup India, standup India, swachh India, and all sorts of government programmes that produce NOTHING substantial. Why don't we have GoToMars India ? Why Indian Space Research Organisation limited to satellite launches ?