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Nuclear Propulsion Could Cut Travel Time to Mars by Half, Idaho Scientists Say

Engineers at the Energy Department's Idaho National Laboratory are leading a nationwide team of scientists to enhance the capabilities of nuclear thermal propulsion, a technology that NASA hopes will cut the travel time to Mars by half.


The project is part of a broader effort by NASA to send humans to Mars by 2040. With conventional technology, launch opportunities to Mars come along just once every 26 months. This means that a crew would have to stay on the surface of Mars for a year or two before they could return to Earth.


Nuclear thermal propulsion would allow for much faster travel times, which would reduce the logistical hurdles and risks associated with a Mars mission. The technology works by heating up hydrogen to high temperatures and using the exhaust as a thruster. This would allow a spacecraft to travel to Mars in as little as three months.

The Idaho National Laboratory is working to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system that is more efficient and controllable than previous designs. The team is also working on ways to shield the crew from radiation and create artificial gravity on the spacecraft.


"We're making significant progress," said Sebastian Corbisiero, senior technical advisor for advanced concepts at the Idaho National Laboratory. "We're confident that we can develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system that will meet NASA's requirements."


China is also developing nuclear propulsion technology. In 2022, Chinese officials unveiled plans for a spaceship that would use nuclear electric engines. This technology is less powerful than nuclear thermal propulsion, but it is more efficient.


The United Kingdom is also working on nuclear propulsion. In 2021, the UK government announced a £100 million investment in the development of nuclear propulsion for space missions.

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