A Plasma Rocket From Nasa Could Send Humans to Mars in Just 2 Months

astronaut on mars kneeling looking at space rocket in distance
NASA Puts More Money Behind Sci-Fi Plasma Rocketpeepo - Getty Images
  • Right now it takes roughly eight months for astronauts to travel from Earth to Mars, but if NASA or any other space agencies have hopes of establishing a base on the Red Planet, they’ll need to cut that travel time down significantly.

  • Earlier this month, NASA proved that it’s getting serious about its investment into nuclear-powered rockets by moving a fission-based plasma rocket known as the pulse plasma rocket into Phase II funding under the NIAC program.

  • This rocket could cut astronaut travel times to Mars down to just two months, or significantly increase payloads for resupply missions—both of which will be crucial for NASA’s future Martian plans.

The logistics of putting living, breathing humans on Mars (and keeping them both living and breathing) is one of the greatest technological challenges in human history. And while heavy lift rockets, nuclear power stations, and even far-fetched ideas like planet-wide terraforming get lots of attention, NASA and other space agencies need to figure out how to overcome one very big obstacle—getting there in the first place.

Of course, NASA has sent plenty of satellites, probes, and rovers to the Red Planet, and the stunning arrival of Perseverance in 2021 put that technological prowess on full display. However, Perseverance’s journey to Mars took more than 7 months, and that’s thanks to Mars’ closest approach to Earth. For a fully fledged outpost on the planet to succeed, NASA will need to cut travel time between planets down as much as possible while increasing payloads. But chemical rockets can only achieve so much.

Luckily, there’s a new kind of rocket that can make these fast travel dreams possible. It’s time to send nuclear rockets to space.

And it appears that NASA agrees. Earlier this month, the space agency’s NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts—which is in charge of funding ambitious and technically feasible aerospace ideas that could power the future of human spaceflight—gave the green light to Howe Industries’ Pulsed Plasma Rocket (PPR), a fission-based propulsion system that splits atoms to generate thrust. Originally joining the NIAC program in 2020 with Phase I funding, PPR now heads to Phase II, where the team will optimize engine design, improve specific impulse (Isp), perform proof-of-concept experiments, and even complete a spaceship design.

“The NIAC Phase I study focused on a large, heavily shielded ship to transport humans and cargo to Mars for the development of a Martian base,” NASA wrote in a press statement. “Phase II will build upon these assessments and further the PPR concept.”

While chemical rockets, such as NASA’s Space Launch System or SpaceX’s Starship, will likely be the first metal-clad chariots on the Red Planet, the future of spaceflight is undeniably a nuclear one. That’s because concepts like Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) and Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP) have shown that they’re capable of traveling farther and faster while also carrying more cargo than their chemical predecessors.

While this is absolutely game-changing for opening up new possibilities for space missions to the outer Solar System, it’s also important for space travel near Earth, as future travelers to Mars will be subjected to galactic cosmic rays. So, reducing travel times to the Red Planet—while also putting more shielding on the spacecraft itself, which nuclear engines can do thanks to their higher payloads)—is just as much a health benefit as it is an economic one.

“Due to the extremely large distances that are involved in space travel, the spacecraft must reach high velocities for reasonable mission transit times. Thus, a propulsion system that produces a high thrust with a high specific impulse is essential,” NASA wrote. “The exceptional performance of the PPR, combining high Isp and high thrust, holds the potential to revolutionize space exploration. The system’s high efficiency allows for manned missions to Mars to be completed within a mere two months.”

Of course, PPR is only in its early stages, but NASA has other plans for nuclear-powered travel already in the works. In partnership with Lockheed Martin, the space agency is planning to launch the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO)—an NTR concept—sometime in 2027. While nuclear power has always been a facet of human spaceflight, it’s role as humanity’s primary means of space-based conveyance is quickly becoming a reality.

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