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Tucked into the recent spending bill that was passed by Congress is a line item for $100 million for NASA to develop nuclear thermal rocket engines, according to a recent article in Space News. The space agency has dabbled in nuclear rockets off and on since the early 1960s. However, NASA plans to conduct a flight demonstration by 2024 is new.

As NASA noted, the space agency in conjunction with what was then the Atomic Energy Commission worked on a project called the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program in the 1960s. The NERVA program tested various reactors and engines until the project was closed in 1972, once it became apparent that humans had stopped going to the moon and would not travel to Mars anytime soon.

A nuclear thermal rocket superheats liquid hydrogen in a nuclear reactor and shoots the resulting plasma out a rocket nozzle. Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) is far more efficient than a chemical rocket, reducing flight times to destinations such as Mars and requiring less fuel. Astronauts would be subjected to less radiation and less time in microgravity using NTP. Even uncrewed space probes would be able to reach their destinations more quickly, opening the solar system to further exploration.

Recent developments in nuclear technology allow engineers to develop cheaper, lighter and safer nuclear thermal propulsion than was envisioned under the NERVA program. Once flight-ready articles are developed, deep-space missions would become even cheaper.

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Category: Science