Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) – By 2035, the US space agency NASA wants to land humans on Mars. But getting to the Red Planet, 140 million miles away, on average, would be a daunting task.
The climate of Mars is cooler than Antarctica, and with little oxygen available on its surface, it is a hostile environment for humans.
The longer it takes astronauts to reach Mars, and the longer they stay, the greater their vulnerability.
It is for this reason that scientists are looking for ways to reduce the length of the flight.
The Seattle-based USNC-Tech company, which specializes in ultra-secure nuclear technologies, has proposed a solution, which is a thermonuclear propulsion engine that could transport humans to Mars in just three months.
Currently, the shortest possible flight for an unmanned spacecraft to the Red Planet is seven months, but the manned mission is expected to take at least nine months.
Michael Edis, director of engineering at USNC-Tech, said that nuclear-powered missiles will be twice as powerful and more efficient, compared to the chemical-engine missiles used today, which means they can travel longer and faster, while burning less fuel.
“Nuclear technology will expand humanity’s reach beyond low Earth orbit and into deep space,” Edice told CNN.
In addition to enabling humans to travel into space, it could open up opportunities for galactic business, Edes said.
Faster space flights
Most of the rockets today are powered by chemical engines, which could be enough to reach Mars, but would take a long time – at least three years for a round trip, according to Geoff Shehey, chief engineer for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
NASA wants astronauts to go to Mars faster, to reduce the duration of the crew’s stay in outer space, which would reduce their exposure to space radiation, which can cause health problems including radiation sickness, an increased risk of cancer, and the effects of the device. Central nervous and degenerative diseases.
It would also reduce the overall risks of the trip, “the longer you are there, the more time you have for things to go wrong,” added Shehi.
That is why the space agency is looking to develop nuclear powered missiles.
The nuclear thermal propulsion engine system uses a nuclear reactor to generate heat from uranium fuel. This thermal energy heats the propellant in a liquid state, usually liquid hydrogen, which expands into a gas and is released, resulting in thrust.
Rockets with nuclear thermal propulsion engines produce twice the thrust per unit of propellant compared to a chemical system, which means that this technology can transport astronauts to Mars and return them in less than two years.
However, one of the main challenges in building a nuclear thermal propulsion engine is finding uranium fuel that can withstand the extreme temperatures inside a nuclear thermal engine.
USNC-Tech claims that it solved this problem by developing a fuel that can withstand temperatures of 2,700 degrees Kelvin, or 2,426.7 degrees Celsius.
While Shehi did not comment on the details of any individual designs, he made clear that the developments showed that nuclear engines were feasible, and could be “a good option for a manned mission to Mars.”
Is the nuclear option safe?
Shorter missions will reduce the spacecraft crew’s exposure to space radiation, but there is still concern about the radiation emitted from the nuclear reactor inside the spacecraft.
Edis explained that this could be mitigated by the design of the missile, noting that liquid fuel, stored between the engine and the crew’s seating area, blocks the radioactive particles and acts as a “very good radiation shield.”
The distance between the crew and the reactor also provides a barrier, Shihey said, and any design for a nuclear engine would place living quarters at the other end of the missile.
In order to protect people on Earth, the thermonuclear propulsion spacecraft will not launch directly from the ground. Instead, a missile with a normal chemical engine will lift it into orbit, and only then the missile launches its nuclear reactor.
Once in orbit, it would not pose much damage, Shihey said, because explosions and thermal radiation could not travel through space.
Shehei added that if a disaster occurred and the missile reactor broke down, the pieces would not land on Earth, or any other planet, for tens of thousands of years. By that time, the radioactive material will have “naturally decomposed to the point that it is no longer dangerous.”
Deep space exploration
Although USNC-Tech’s current goal is a one-way trip to Mars lasting five to nine months, the nuclear-powered technology has the potential to cut off journeys from Earth to Mars by just 90 days, Edes said.
These faster travel times may open a wealth of opportunities.
USNC-Tech hopes to develop its technology for government agencies such as NASA, the Department of Defense and the commercial space market.
The company says its concept could help boost space tourism and “rapid orbital logistics”, such as transporting satellites, or delivering spacecraft capable of fixing satellites in space.