NASA is on the brink of revolutionizing deep space exploration with a new nuclear propulsion concept that could take astronauts from Earth to Mars in just 45 days. The Nuclear Thermal and Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) concept is a new class of bimodal nuclear propulsion system that utilizes a “wave rotor topping cycle,” according to a recent NASA blog post.
This breakthrough technology is part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for 2023 and was proposed by Professor Ryan Gosse, the Hypersonics Program Area Lead at the University of Florida and a member of the Florida Applied Research in Engineering (FLARE) team.
The NTP component of the system is capable of providing high thrust and double the propellant efficiency of chemical rockets, making it a viable option for crewed missions to Mars. It works by using a nuclear reactor to heat a liquid hydrogen propellant, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas which is then channeled through nozzles to generate thrust.
NASA has been exploring the potential of NTP for over 60 years and it allows for more flexible abort scenarios, giving the crew the option to return to Earth at multiple times if needed.
On the other hand, the NEP component uses propellants much more efficiently than chemical rockets but provides a low amount of thrust. It works by using a reactor to generate electricity which positively charges gas propellants like xenon or krypton, pushing the ions out through a thruster, driving the spacecraft forward. The benefit of NEP is that its low thrust accelerates the spacecraft efficiently for extended periods.
With this revolutionary new propulsion system, NASA is one step closer to making crewed missions to Mars.