Using nuclear propulsion technologies to support a human mission to Mars in 2039 will require NASA to pursue an "aggressive and urgent technology development program," according to a new report released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The report urges NASA to "commit within the year to conducting an extensive and objective assessment of the merits and challenges of using different types of space nuclear propulsion systems and to making significant technology investments this decade," the organization said. "Such a program must include subsystem development, prototype systems, ground testing, and cargo missions as a means of flight qualification prior to first crewed use," the report said.
Space Nuclear Propulsion for Human Mars Exploration assesses the primary challenges, merits, and risks for developing a nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) system and a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system for a human mission to Mars. While NEP converts the thermal energy from a nuclear reactor into electrical energy to power electric thrusters, NTP uses the thermal energy from a nuclear reactor to heat a rocket propellant and create thrust.
“Safely transporting astronauts to and from Mars will require advances in propulsion systems to develop spacecraft that are up to the challenge,” said Roger Myers, owner of R. Myers Consulting and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Nuclear propulsion systems have the potential to substantially reduce trip time compared to non-nuclear approaches. Synergy with other space mission applications and terrestrial power programs is also significant and will bring about added value.”
The report identifies challenges inherent in both the NEP and the NTP propulsion options. "The fundamental challenge for developing a NEP system is scaling up the operating power for each subsystem, something that requires power levels that are orders of magnitude greater than have ever been achieved to date," the Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine said.4
“Space nuclear propulsion technology shows great potential to facilitate the human exploration of Mars,” said Bobby Braun, director for planetary science at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. “However, significant acceleration in the pace of technology maturation is required if NASA and its partners are to complete this mission within the stated timeline.”
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Good luck with that. US social and PC programs will eat up all the funds by 2039.