Moving things between planets is a costly exercise no matter which way you cut it. Whilst we’ve come up with some rather ingenious ideas for doing things efficiently, like gravity assists and ion thrusters, these things can only take us so far and the trade offs usually come in the form of extended duration. For our robotic probes this is a no brainer as machines are more than happy to while away the time in space whilst the fleshy counterparts do their bits back here on Earth. For sending humans (and larger payloads) however these trade offs are less than ideal, especially if you want to do round trips in a reasonable time frame. Thus we have always been on the quest to find better ways to sling ourselves around the universe and NASA has committed to investigating an idea which has been dormant for decades.
NASA has been charged with the task of getting humans to Mars by sometime in the 2030s, something which shouldn’t sound like an ambitious feat (but it is, thanks to the budget they’ve got to work with). There are several technical hurdles that need to be overcome before this can occur not least of which is developing a launch system which will be able to get them there in a relatively short timespan. Primarily this is a function of the resources required to keep astronauts alive and functioning in space for that length of time without the continual support of launches from home. Current chemical propulsion will get us there in about 6 months which, whilst feasible, still means that any mission to there would take over a year. One kind of propulsion that could cut that time down significantly is Nuclear Thermal which NASA has investigated in the past.
There are numerous types of Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) however the one that’s showing the most promise, in terms of feasibility and power output, is the Gas Core Reactor. Mostly this comes from the designs high specific impulse which allows it to generate an incredible amount of thrust from a small amount of propellant which would prove invaluable for decreasing mission duration. Such designs were previously explored as part of the NERVA program back in the 1970s however it was cancelled when the supporting mission to Mars was cancelled. However with another Mars mission back on the books NASA has begun investigating the technology again as part of the Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator (NTREES) at their Huntsville facility.
NTP systems likely wouldn’t be used for the initial launch instead they’d form part of the later stage to be used once the craft had made it to space. This negates many of the potential negative aspects like radioactive material being dispersed into the atmosphere and would allow for some concessions in the designs to increase efficiency. Several potential craft have been drafted (including the one pictured above) which use this idea to significantly reduce travel times between planets or, in the case of supply missions, dramatically increase their effective payload. Whether any of these will see the light of day is up to the researchers and mission planners at NASA but there are few competing designs that provide as many benefits as the nuclear options do.
It’s good to see NASA pursuing alternative ideas like this as they could one day become the key technology for humanity to spread its presence further into our universe. The decades of chemical based rocketry that we have behind us have been very fruitful but we’re fast approaching the limitations of that technology and we need to be looking further ahead if we want to further our ambitions. With NASA (and others) investigating this technology I’m confident we’ll see it soon.