Daily Management Review

NASA’s Mars Mission To Make Use Of Cold War-Era Atomic Rockets


NASA’s Mars Mission To Make Use Of Cold War-Era Atomic Rockets
A technology that dates back to the 1970s is being raked up by Nasa in its race for sending humans to Mars. These are nuclear powered rockets.
The tasks of designing a nuclear reactor and the development of fuel that would be used in nuclear-thermal propulsion engine has been handed over by NASA to BWXT Nuclear Energy Inc. These would form the basis for deep-space travel. The same idea for space travelling is being pursued by Russia and China.
A propellant like liquid hydrogen is heated by the atomic systems in an atomic powered rocket where the heated gas expands while passing through a nozzle to generate power to push a spacecraft forward. In conventional rocket technology, thrust is created by burning fuel.
Stephen Heister, a professor at Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said that the atomic power technology doubles the efficiency of the use of rocket fuel which helps in the creation of a “drastically smaller” space craft and much lesser transit time.
“This factor is absolutely huge, especially for very difficult missions that necessitate a lot of propellant such as a Mars flight.”
“The application of BWXT capabilities for manufacturing systems for space applications is a modest but extremely important area of technical development,” said Jonathan Cirtain, vice president for advanced technology programs at BWXT. “The size of the market is directly tied to how easily these systems can be manufactured and how these in-space nuclear power systems for either electrical or propulsive power compare to alternative sources.”
Pioneers in the nuclear power industry such as Westinghouse Electric Co. have been driven to bankruptcy because political opposition to nuclear power generation projects, mistrust of the technology by the public, tighter regulations and construction delays in the US, Europe and Japan. And China and Russia are among the countries that have taken the lead in nuclear power plant development because renewable energy and cheaper natural gags in place of nuclear power is being sought by countries like Germany, South Korea and Taiwan.
NASA is not the only agency that wants to take people to Mars Private companies like the one owned by Elon Musk have also pledged to help humans set foot on Mars. A liquid oxygen and methane fuelled engine is being developed by Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. On the other hand, liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas is being tested as a fuel for an engine by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
And once people are able to set foot on Mars, NASA also plans to make use of atomic technology to run human colonies there. Kilopower, nuclear fission reactors that are space ready and is able to generate up to 10 kilowatts of power and deployable on other planets and moons is being developed by NASA and the Department of Energy. Earlier space missions by NASA which includes the Mars Curiosity rover, had made use of radioisotope thermoelectric generators which are batteries which function on the heat from radioactive materials.
“Significant advances in material research and technology development have allowed for new materials to be considered for the critical components of the reactor,” said BWXT’s Cirtain.