Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (KBRwyle)

By Joshua Hawkins

NASA’s manned mission to Mars would take seven months with the current technology we have for rockets. However, a nuclear-powered spacecraft could make that trek in just 45 days, according to news shared by the space agency. The design, which has been in the works in some fashion for the past few decades, uses a nuclear reactor to provide energy to the rocket.

Nuclear Thermal and Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) is a top contender for the job, too. The original design is part of research completed by the NASA and Soviet space program, which happened during the Space Race all those years ago. A few years ago, NASA reignited the program for the explicit purpose of creating a bimodal nuclear propulsion device that would consist of NTP and NEP elements.

The idea is to create a nuclear-powered spacecraft capable of cutting down the transit time to Mars and other planets exponentially. NASA shared an updated page on the topic this month, detailing how the system would look and how it would take advantage of a wave rotor topping cycle. This new class of propulsion system would cut the Mars trip down by literal months.

As part of its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for 2023, the space agency has selected a nuclear concept to enter phase 1 development. It’s unclear exactly when the phase 1 development might lead to a proper nuclear-powered spacecraft. Still, it is reassuring for the future of space exploration to see the space agency looking for new ways to push its systems further.

The Artemis I launch last year left many people excited about the prospects of exploring our solar system even more. But, if we want to take astronauts to Mars and other planets reliably, we’re going to need nuclear-powered spacecraft that can make the trip more bearable, as six months in space waiting to arrive at Mars could cause astronauts to lose an insane amount of bone mass.

You can check out NASA’s video teasing some of the innovations it plans to explore this year. This latest development will receive a $12,500 grant to assist in maturing the technology and even include some other proposals to help create new instruments, power systems, and more.