With chemical rockets approaching their theoretical limits, engineers have been looking at nuclear energy in attempts to build an engine suitable for covering large distances in space. If such engines are to be used for crewed missions outside the Earth’s atmosphere, they would have to be light and safe to operate under the conditions prevailing in outer space.
Now, Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies (USNC-Tech) had recently announced the development of a concept for a new Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) engine that’s about twice as efficient as chemical rockets, as well as safer and more reliable than previous NTP designs. The blueprints for the new engine have already been submitted to NASA.
If the goal of using nuclear propulsion is realised, the duration of trips from Earth to Mars would be reduced to just 3 months, and further ventures into deep space could finally become a reality.
The new engine is powered by Fully Ceramic Micro-encapsulated (FCM) fuel based on High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU). The latter is derived from reprocessed civilian nuclear fuel, enriched to between 5 and 20 per cent, and encapsulated into particles coated with zirconium carbide (ZrC).
In addition to being obtainable with current supply chains and manufacturing plants, FCM is also more rugged and suitable for use at high temperatures, which allows for safer reactors, high thrust, and high specific impulse, previously achievable only with highly-enriched uranium.
Apart from use during future trips to Mars, the new fuel could also be rolled out to the commercial market, and made available to NASA and the US Department of Defence for the purposes of private missions.
“Key to USNC-Tech’s design is a conscious overlap between terrestrial and space reactor technologies,” said Dr Paolo Venneri, CEO of USNC-Tech. “This allows us to leverage the advancements in nuclear technology and infrastructure from terrestrial systems and apply them to our space reactors.”