A Washington-based company has developed a nuclear-powered engine concept that could reduce the travel time to Mars on future space missions to up to three months.
Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies (USNC-Tech) said it submitted its design concept to NASA as part of a study of nuclear thermal propulsion systems (NTP) for space travel.
NTP systems are powered by a process known as nuclear fission – the splitting of atoms. These systems typically work by pumping a liquid propellant through a core of a nuclear reactor where the atoms are fissioned, generating heat.
This process heats the propellant and converts it into a gas that generates thrust. NTP systems deliver more power and are more efficient than conventional chemical rockets. Engineers use a measure known as “specific momentum” to evaluate the performance of different propulsion systems.
The specific impulse is the amount of thrust that a design can generate from a given amount of fuel. The higher this rating, the better.
Michael Eades, chief engineer at USNC-Tech, said in a statement that the company’s new concept is more reliable than previous NTP designs and has a “specific impulse that is more than twice that of chemical systems.
“We want to be at the forefront of efforts to open new frontiers in space, and we want to do so quickly and safely,” said Eades.
NTP systems promise to significantly reduce travel times in space and carry heavier payloads than today’s most advanced chemical rockets – although they are not designed to send rockets into orbit and are only deployed after launch.
These devices could, for example, enable more than half the normal travel time to Mars, which is currently about seven months. This would be an advantage for NASA, which plans to send manned missions to the Moon and the Red Planet.
USNC-Tech said that its new concept includes design aspects of nuclear reactors used for on-shore energy supply.
“The key to USNC-Tech’s design is a deliberate overlap between terrestrial and space reactor technologies,” USNC-Tech CEO Paolo Venneri said in the statement. “This allows us to leverage advances in nuclear technology and infrastructure from terrestrial systems and apply them to our space reactors.
One example of this is the nuclear fuel used by the concept to power its reactor, known as Fully Ceramic Microencapsulated (FCM). This fuel is actually based on reprocessed material from civil nuclear reactors.
According to the company, this fuel is more “robust” and can operate at higher temperatures than conventional nuclear fuel, resulting in a safer concept design.