Russia has announced that it will test a nuclear engine in 2018 that could help cosmonauts reach Mars in just six weeks.
This compares to the 18 months spacecraft currently need to get to Mars, and could make Russia the first nation to land humans on the red planet.
The country is betting on nuclear propulsion because it weighs almost half as much as a chemical rocket without reducing thrust.
This means larger payloads of cargo can be carried on the spacecraft and they can also be made to travel far faster.
And unlike existing technology which uses defined trajectories, a nuclear engine also allows a spacecraft to manoeuvre throughout the flight.
The $274 million project, which was originally overseen by the space agency RosCosmos in 2010, has now become the responsibility of nuclear group, Rosatom.
‘A nuclear power unit makes it possible to reach Mars in a matter of one to one and a half months, providing capability for manoeuvring and acceleration,’ Sergey Kirienko, head of Rosatom told RT .
‘Today’s engines can only reach Mars in a year and a half, without the possibility of return.’
Russia currently has used over 30 fission reactors in space, the US has flown only one – the SNAP-10A (System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) in 1965.
Engineers at Nasa have also been drawing up plans to use nuclear thermal propulsion in a mission to Mars in 2033.
According to the space agency’s design, uranium-235 nuclear reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas, or plasma.
This plasma is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust.
Dr Stanely Borowski, an engineer at Nasa’s John Glenn Research Centre, last year outlined how this could then be used to propel a space with its crew through space in a official Nasa paper.
He said the spacecraft, called Copernicus, would consist of separate cargo and crewed transfer vehicles, each powered by a nuclear thermal propuslion stage.
These would be constructed from a ‘core’ that use three engines each capable of producing thrust of around 25,000 lbs of force.
He estimates that these vehicles could make the 40 million mile trip to Mars within 100 days.
It took the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft carrying Nasa’s Curiosity Rover to Mars 253 days to reach the red planet.
Writing in his paper, Dr Borowski said: ‘The analysis presented here indicates transit time reductions as much as 50 per cent are possible.’
Nasa first began researching nuclear thermal rockets as part of its Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) programme in 1959.
However, the project, which was a collaboration between Nasa and the US Atomic Energy Comission, was officially ended in 1973.
During that time, engineers produced several prototypes, the most advanced of which was known as a Pewee engine. None of the engines were ever used for flight.
Proposals to use nuclear powered rockets were also discussed in a presentation last year by Dr Michael Houts, nuclear research manager at Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Centre.
He described the nuclear propulsion was a ‘game changing technology for space exploration’.
He said they hoped to prove the viability and affordability of the technology within the next three years.
Dr Houts said: ‘Nuclear thermal propulsion is a fundamentally new capability – the energy comes from fission not chemical reactions.
‘Advanced nuclear propulsion systems could have extremely high performance and unique capabilities.’
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