This week’s topic is near and dear to my heart (I know, when aren’t they?). But this one is especially so since so much depends on it. Around the world today, space agencies and commercial space entities are developing nuclear propulsion systems. These systems come in the form of Nuclear-Thermal (NTP), Nuclear-Electric (NEP), and Bimodal Nuclear Propulsion (BNP) – where both methods are used by a spacecraft.
The technology could drastically reduce transit times to destinations beyond the Earth-Moon system, including Mars, the Asteroid Belt, Venus, and beyond. This will mean that crews will have to spend less time in microgravity, which has a serious impact on human physiology. It has the added benefits of reducing astronaut exposure to radiation and ensuring they arrive at their destinations in better health.
This technology was first explored during the early Space Age by both NASA and the Soviet space program. These efforts led to the first slow-fission nuclear reactors for space but were shelved with the closing of the Apollo Era. With space agencies looking to take the next great leap, nuclear programs have been reignited as a solution to long-duration missions to deep space. Beyond propulsion, nuclear power is also being considered to provide electricity to facilities far away from Earth.
While studies conducted between the 1970s and 1990s predicted that nuclear spacecraft could make it to Mars in about half the time as chemical propulsion (100 days instead of 8 or 9 months), current estimates have narrowed that to just 45 days. It seems pretty clear at this point that the future of space exploration hinges on nuclear power! Check it out by following the links below.