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Creating a rocket that will reach Mars in 90 days3 min read

March 24, 2021 3 min read

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Creating a rocket that will reach Mars in 90 days3 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Mars’ rusty-red hues makes it look pretty and light up the night sky but looks are pretty deceiving. Mars is actually a harsh planet full of dust storms and low oxygen levels. Yet that is only the first of our worries. With nine months to get to Mars on a manned mission, we have to find a way to supply all the oxygen and food for the trip. Some of this just got a whole lot easier.

How so?

One answer seems to be nuclear power. Nuclear power is robust, renewable and none of us have really seen what it’s capable of yet. So far, humanity’s memories of nuclear power are limited but it could really be the next step in space technology!

USNC-Tech is a space company that is looking into how to make nuclear-powered rockets. They estimate that with these rockets, travel to Mars can be completed in 90 days, and using less fuel.

You might not believe it, but reducing the travel time has a huge upside. The biggest problem in sending people to space is their exposure to radiation in space. This can cause health problems later in life, and reducing the travel time by ⅔ will significantly reduce their exposure to radiation. But, there are growing concerns on how much radiation could get into the spacecraft from the engine. 

A radioactive element, uranium, will be used in this rocket. USNC-Tech is looking into how to increase the temperature this uranium can withstand, because the uranium will otherwise melt under the high heat of the rocket engine. This will make it unusable for fuel. In nuclear reactors, where uranium is generally use, there are special cooling mechanisms to prevent melting.

Here is a short video on how nuclear propulsion works.

Will this really work?

The idea of a nuclear-powered rocket was initially floated around because nuclear power can produce twice the amount of thrust per propellant compared to a normal rocket. Eventually, this became the main reason for its creation!

There are some serious concerns with the temperature needed for this rocket engine to work. Nuclear power of this type has to be run at very high temperatures, which could result in a lot of propellant being used to heat the engine itself. Specifically, the fuel needs to be heated to almost 2430 degrees celsius. Another issue that was brought up is how refined the uranium has to be. Normal uranium would be too brittle to use, therefore, the uranium has to highly enriched and refined.

Will it actually work? We won’t know until we watch the rocket take off!

When can we see these rockets in action?

USNC-Tech is unsure when this will be available to use for humans. They estimate at least 20 years of waiting, although it might take more because of retesting this model. NASA is looking to get humans to Mars by 2035, so this might be a better plan for later. Other companies are already in the prototype phase of their Mars rockets, so USNC-Tech’s suggestion could be an improvement that NASA decides to use. Rocket Lab and USNC-Tech have unveiled their plans just around the same time. It will be interestting to see which one of them gets to making a working rocket first.

This uranium-powered rocket will be intriguing once it gets out into the space market, but until then, we’ll be looking forward to more exciting space missions!

(All Things Science is a column about science, space and other related topics.)

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