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NASA is working on a nuclear rocket. The space agency has signed an $18.8 million contract with BWX Technologies, based in Lynchburg, Virginia, to start developing a nuclear reactor that could power the rockets that some day shuttle people to Mars.

Nuclear thermal propulsion uses a nuclear reaction to heat fuel, generally liquid hydrogen, which expands and shoots out of a rocket nozzle to create thrust. The technology can enable rockets to attain more thrust per unit of fuel than standard rocket engines can. This means only about half as much fuel is required as used in the main engines for the space shuttle programme – the gold standard of rocket engines for the past 40 years.

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