The Solar System is a really big place, and it takes forever to travel from world to world with traditional chemical rockets. But one technique, developed back in the 1960s might provide a way to dramatically shorten our travel times: nuclear rockets.

Of course, launching a rocket powered by radioactive material has its own risks as well. Should we attempt it?

Let’s say that you wanted to visit Mars using a chemical rocket. You would blast off from Earth and go into low Earth orbit. Then, at the right moment, you’d fire your rocket, raising your orbit from the Sun. The new elliptical trajectory you’re following intersects with Mars after eight months of flight. 

This is known as  Hohmann transfer, and it’s the most efficient way we know how to travel in space, using the least amount of propellant and the largest amount of payload. The problem of course, is the time it takes. Throughout the journey, astronauts will be consuming food, water, air, and be exposed to the long term radiation of deep space. Then a return mission doubles the need to resources and doubles the radiation load.

We need to go faster.

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