Russia wants to get to Mars faster with nuclear power; may re-purpose atomic rockets from Cold War era

The space race could be won by a nation that isn’t the United States in the next 50 years, and with the use of technology that’s already many decades old, at that. That is, unless the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) manages to go ahead and finish ahead of its competitors by using the exact same technology that they plan to – which is fortunate since they have access to it already anyway.

The old technology that could someday propel human spacecraft to the farthest regions of space, including the red planet Mars, is none other than nuclear-powered rockets, which the agency turned its back on some time in the 1970s. The agency’s renewed interest in it is due to the fact that Russia is reportedly working to base all of its future space flight missions around it – to power its rockets and so-called space shuttles once it manages to perfect its current prototypes.

According to a report, the Russia-based Rosatom Corporation is already planning to test its first prototype nuclear engines some time this year, and its primary aim in making it is to make it all the way from Earth to the planet Mars. So far, it is said that Russia has led in this particular field of research, and that it has already deployed more than 30 different fission reactors in space to date. This data is from the World Nuclear Association, which has been keeping a close eye on the official record for a while now.

Meanwhile, Russia is not the only one with its eyes on the prize. China is said to be planning to use atomic-powered shuttles as well as part of its space exploration projects from now through 2045, according to the China-based state Xinhua News Agency.

For its part, NASA has already begun the process of studying nuclear-powered rocket technology in preparation for future Mars missions. In 2017, the agency signed an $18.8 million partnership with BWXT Nuclear Energy to have them design a reactor as well as develop fuel that can be used in a new kind of nuclear-thermal propulsion engine meant for space travel. Nuclear thermal propulsion technology is nothing new, but it has been left unused for decades now. This time around, NASA wants to go beyond feasibility studies and use it in actual space travel missions.

According to Jonathan Cirtain, the vice president for advanced technology programs at BWXT, the future of the entire space industry could be riding on the success or failure of today’s efforts to develop nuclear-powered rocket technology for space missions. “The application of BWXT capabilities for manufacturing systems for space applications is a modest but extremely important area of technical development,” he said. “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.”

Although the U.S. did decide to stop using atomic rockets in space missions many years back due to a number of different reasons, things have changed drastically, making their use viable once again. As BWXT’s Cirtain himself said, “Significant advances in material research and technology development have allowed for new materials to be considered for the critical components of the reactor.”

According to Jeffrey Sheehy, the chief engineer of the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA, using nuclear propulsion technology could offer much-needed flexibility for future space missions. “The novelty of the reactor design limits the amount of nuclear fuel required to execute a propulsion maneuver,” he said. “It would be possible to restart that engine multiple times.”

Clearly, NASA needs to hurry up in developing modern nuclear propulsion tech that can be used to stay ahead of competing nations in the worldwide space race. Otherwise, the U.S. may not be the one to benefit from the future discoveries that many future space missions could hold.

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