Nuclear Propulsion – The Next NASA Game Changer?


As the race to Mars intensifies, NASA has begun exploring a new technological resource that could speed things up, literally.  Nuclear propulsion has yet to be used in space travel, but if it can be developed within the next few years, it could be quite the game-changer for the space industry as we know it. 

As we know, space travel is evolving at a faster rate than it ever has before, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that new forms of energy are being developed around the world to be utilized here on Earth.  Nuclear power is becoming more and more prominent in many industries, and NASA is finding ways to utilize it in a way that could make space travel more efficient, safe and speedy than it ever has been in the past.

What is Nuclear Propulsion?

Propulsion refers to the act of something being pushed forward or driven in a specific direction.  Nuclear propulsion refers to using nuclear energy to propel an item.  So, when applied to space travel, nuclear propulsion would allow spacecraft to move toward a destination using the heat that’s harnessed by nuclear fission reactions.  This would dramatically accelerate propellants that are used in modern-day spacecraft, meaning that spacecraft could reach their destination in incredibly short periods of time.

As you know, NASA is hoping to send astronauts to Mars within the next ten years, and competition around the world is fierce.  Nuclear propulsion could give NASA the competitive edge needed to win the race.  It could cut the time it takes to travel to Mars in half, meaning that spacecraft could reach the planet within three to four months as opposed to eight. 

There’s another benefit as well.  Radiation exposure can cause gradual damage to astronauts’ brains.  Signs of high radiation exposure include confusion and mood problems.  NASA understandably wants to protect its astronauts against these symptoms, which would be hard to do with more traditional propulsions.  Basically, the longer the time spent in spacecraft, the more likely these symptoms can occur.  Shortening the time it takes to travel such far distances using nuclear propulsion could lessen the chance of dangerous radiation exposure.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that NASA is interested in using nuclear propulsion to benefit our planet as well.  For one thing, it could help prevent spacecraft orbiting our planet from colliding into anti-satellite weapons.  Additionally, it could actually allow military bases to use power while “off the grid,” which would be extremely valuable in terms of national security.

It’s worth pointing out that Congress seems to be eager to test nuclear propulsion in various applications.  In fact, a $100 million budget has been approved this year to test and explore options using this technology.

Therefore, it’s safe to assume that NASA will be testing this technology as soon as possible as a way to both enhance space travel in general and apply this technology to Mars exploration.  With the budget in place, it’s clear that nuclear propulsion could be a top priority of 2019 and 2020 as far as NASA is concerned.  And, if this technology can benefit Americans on land, it’s even more likely that this technology will be heavily supported.

The Possibilities are Endless

Nuclear propulsion could potentially make space travel safer while helping spacecraft reach its destination in record time.  As it stands, it’s only being discussed as an option among NASA officials.  But, given NASA’s motivation to make it to Mars first, it’s safe to say that nuclear propulsion will be seriously considered over the next couple years.

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