NASA Handed New Nuclear Engine Design That Could Cut Travel Time to Mars by More Than Half

A Washington-based company has come up with a nuclear-powered engine concept that could cut the journey time to Mars to as little as three months in future space missions.

Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies (USNC-Tech) said it has delivered its design concept to NASA as part of a study on nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) systems for space flight.

NTP systems are powered by a process known as nuclear fission—the splitting of atoms. These systems tend to work by pumping a liquid propellant through a nuclear reactor core, where atoms are split, producing heat.

This process heats up the propellant, converting it into a gas, which produces thrust. NTP systems provide more power and are more efficient than standard chemical rockets. Engineers use a measure known as "specific impulse" to rate the performance of different propulsion systems.

Specific impulse is the amount of thrust a design can produce from a specific amount of propellant. The higher this rating, the better.

USNC-Tech principal engineer Michael Eades said in a statement that the company's new concept was more reliable than previous NTP designs and has a "specific impulse more than twice that of chemical systems."

"We want to lead the effort to open new frontiers in space, and do it quickly and safely," Eades said.

NTP systems promise to significantly reduce travel times in space and carry heavier payloads than today's most advanced chemical rockets—though they are not designed to send rockets into orbit and will only be used after launch.

These devices could, for example, more than half the normal journey time to Mars, which is currently around seven months. This would be beneficial to NASA, as it plans to send crewed missions to the moon and the Red Planet.

USNC-Tech said its new concept incorporates design aspects from nuclear reactors that are used to provide energy on land.

"Key to USNC-Tech's design is a conscious overlap between terrestrial and space reactor technologies," USNC-Tech CEO Paolo Venneri said in the statement. "This allows us to leverage the advancements in nuclear technology and infrastructure from terrestrial systems and apply them to our space reactors."

One example of this is the nuclear fuel that the concept uses to power its reactor, which is called Fully Ceramic Microencapsulated (FCM). This fuel is actually based on reprocessed material from civilian nuclear reactors.

The company said this fuel is more "rugged" and can operate at higher temperatures than conventional nuclear fuels, producing a safer concept design.

Mars, Earth, moon
Stock image: 3D rendering of Mars, Earth and the moon in space. Nuclear thermal propulsion systems could significantly reduce the travel time to Mars.