Could Nuclear Rockets Make Travel to Mars Possible?

January 28, 2013

NASA Glenn Research Center

A NASA illustration of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket, one which could be used to provide spacecraft with electrical power for operations and instrumentation. If a group of thousands of petitioners gets its way, future missions to Mars and other planets could use nuclear thermal rockets like these.

Ride a nuclear-powered rocket to Mars? Apparently thousands of people want to, and they've started an online petition that seeks to persuade the government to get such a program off the ground.

More than 2,600 people have signed a petition on a White House-sponsored website, asking the government to "rapidly develop and deploy a nuclear thermal rocket for both manned and unmanned space missions."

The website, called We the People, allows citizens to start and promote any online petition they wish. If a petition gets enough support -- 100,000 signatures within 30 days -- the Obama administration promises a response.

What has the online petitioners excited is the promise of using nuclear thermal rockets to power a mission to Mars and possibly other destinations throughout the solar system, a technology that scientists at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center have begun experimenting with.

In early January, NASA's Nuclear Cryogenic Propulsion Stage team announced it was beginning a three-year project to find out whether nuclear propulsion systems would be viable for sending humans safely to Mars and other planets. 

The technology is nothing new, reports the website TechNewsDaily. In fact, it's been around since the Kennedy administration, and was once considered the future of space travel until the Nixon administration abandoned it in the early 1970s, in favor of developing what would become NASA's space shuttle program.

Thanks to their ability to generate higher thrust -- a nuclear rocket uses uses a nuclear reactor to heat hydrogen to very high temperatures, which expands through a nozzle to generate thrust, scientists at NASA explain -- nuclear rocket engines are more than twice as efficient as conventional chemical rocket engines.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say we couldn't do Mars without nuclear thermal," NASA nuclear engineer Mike Houts told TechNewsDaily, referring to manned missions. "What it does is it opens up very attractive options for doing those missions."

Read the full story at TechNewsDaily.

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