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NASA Wants To Go To Mars On A Nuclear-Powered Rocket

A rocket using low-enriched uranium could cut travel time to the Red Planet by a third.

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An artist rendering of a nuclear powered rocket speeding into deep space from Earth. Rocket has an American flag on it, as well as NASA and SpaceForce logos.
An artist rendering of a nuclear powered rocket speeding into deep space from Earth.
Illustration: NASA

NASA is committed to getting humanity all the way to the Red Planet, and it thinks the best way to do that is a nuclear-powered rocket.

And just like that, I have a new answer to what I’d paint on the side of a 1970's van.


It seems roving around the Martian surface just isn’t good enough; we’ve got to have some face time with the little red guy. NASA announced it would work with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency back in January to develop a nuclear propulsion rocket travel three times faster than traditional liquid fuel rockets.

NBC News checked in with the project to find out how NASA and DARPA plan on using nuclear power to propel these rockets:

The program has been dubbed DRACO, short for Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations.

The system uses high heat from a fission reactor to turn liquid propellant into a gas, which is then funneled through a nozzle to power the spacecraft.

This type of propulsion can create more thrust and is at least three times as efficient as chemical rockets, according to NASA. That means needing to carry less fuel onboard, which frees up room to haul more equipment, science experiments or other cargo to the Martian surface.

“It can completely change the game of how people think about what is possible in space — what you can carry, how quickly you can get there,” DARPA Director Stefanie Tompkins said. “You have much more flexibility in getting where you want, when you want.”


The scientist goes on to call the technology safe because it would use low-enriched uranium rather than highly enriched, weapons grade uranium. Which...sure. Why not. LEU is what goes into nuclear reactors and none of those have ever posed a health risk to humans, right?

Using this form of rocket would cut travel time to the Red Planet from an eight months to just two and a half, exposing astronauts to much less risk and cosmic radiation. It would also give them more time to focus on boots-on-the-Martian-soil type work, and allow astronauts to bring more stuff with them since they wouldn’t have to haul around a ton of fuel.

The European Space Agency is also betting on nuclear to power its ambitions for deep space research. Nuclear power isn’t our only option for traveling deeper into the solar system; NASA is also fooling around with a rotating detonation rocket engine, or RDRE.

Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine Test at Marshall Space Flight Center