NASA and DARPA to Test Nuclear-Powered Rocket for Future Mars Missions

by Rida Fatima

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) have recently announced a groundbreaking collaboration to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space. This technology will enable NASA’s crewed missions to Mars and marks a significant step forward in space exploration.

Figure 1: Artist concept of Demonstration for Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) spacecraft
(Figure 1: Artist concept of Demonstration for Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) spacecraft, which will demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine. Nuclear thermal propulsion technology could be used for future NASA crewed missions to Mars. (Credits: DARPA))

NASA and DARPA Partnership

NASA and DARPA have a long history of collaboration and working together on projects that have enabled their respective missions. Moreover, NASA and DARPA’s partnership has been instrumental in advancing space technologies and achieving key milestones in space exploration. One of the notable previous collaborations between NASA and DARPA was the Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the moon for the first time. Another collaboration between the two agencies was the in-space servicing project that focused on refuelling and repairing satellites while they were still in orbit.

Figure 2: Adapted from page 26 of the S-IVB Saturn High Energy Upper Stage and its Development (Douglas Paper No. 4040), located in the Saturn V collection,
(Figure 2: Adapted from page 26 of the S-IVB Saturn High Energy Upper Stage and its Development (Douglas Paper No. 4040), located in the Saturn V collection, Dept. of Archives/Special Collections.)

Now, NASA and DARPA have announced their latest collaboration to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space, which will enable NASA’s crewed missions to Mars. The partnership will be through the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program. This non-reimbursable agreement outlines the roles, responsibilities, and processes for both agencies to speed up development efforts. The collaboration between NASA and DARPA on nuclear propulsion technology will help drive forward NASA’s goal to send humans to Mars.

Under the agreement, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) will lead the technical development of the nuclear thermal engine, which will be integrated with DARPA’s experimental spacecraft. DARPA will act as the contracting authority for the development of the entire stage and the engine, which includes the reactor. DARPA will be leading the overall program, which includes rocket systems integration and procurement, approvals, scheduling, and security. They will also cover safety and liability, ensuring the engine’s overall assembly and integration with the spacecraft. Throughout the development process, NASA and DARPA will collaborate on the assembly of the engine before the in-space demonstration, which is expected to occur as early as 2027.

The partnership between NASA and DARPA is crucial for the advancement of space technology, as the space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security. With this collaboration, the two agencies will leverage their combined expertise gained from many previous space nuclear power and propulsion projects to efficiently and quickly transport materials to the Moon and, eventually, people to Mars. The DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for advancing space technology and enabling future missions to the Red Planet.

Figure 3: Artist’s concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. (Credit: NASA)
(Figure 3: Artist’s concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. (Credit: NASA))

Benefits of Nuclear-Powered Rocket

The use of a nuclear thermal rocket engine offers several benefits over traditional chemical propulsion systems.

  • Firstly, it allows for faster transit times, reducing the risk for astronauts on long space missions. This reduction in transit time is crucial for human missions to Mars as longer trips require more supplies and more robust systems.
  • Secondly, a nuclear thermal rocket engine increases science payload capacity and provides higher power for instrumentation and communication.

In a nuclear thermal rocket engine, a fission reactor is used to generate extremely high temperatures. The engine then transfers the heat produced by the reactor to a liquid propellant, which is expanded and exhausted through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. Nuclear thermal rockets can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion systems, making them a more attractive option for space missions.

This new technology also supports NASA’s Fission Surface Power project and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) commercial design efforts to develop nuclear power plant concepts that could be used on the surface of the Moon and Mars. NASA and the DOE are also working on another commercial design effort to advance higher-temperature fission fuels and reactor designs as part of the nuclear thermal propulsion engine, with the goal of increased engine performance in the future.

The benefits of a nuclear thermal rocket engine are numerous and include faster transit times, increased science payload capacity, higher power for instrumentation and communication, and increased efficiency compared to traditional chemical propulsion systems. NASA and DARPA’s collaboration on the DRACO program will help to advance this technology and make crewed missions to Mars a reality.

Previous Nuclear Thermal Rocket Engine Tests

It’s important to note that the last tests of nuclear thermal rocket engines in the United States were conducted over 50 years ago. The tests were carried out under NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects. Despite these earlier efforts, the technology has advanced significantly since then and has paved the way for new developments in space nuclear technology.

One notable reference is the Rover program, which was developed during the 1960s and 70s. The program aimed to demonstrate the feasibility of using nuclear reactors to power space missions, and it was responsible for developing and testing nuclear thermal rocket engines. The project was considered a success as it was able to demonstrate the potential of the technology, but it was eventually cancelled due to budget constraints.

Another reference is the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program. This program was also developed during the 1960s and 70s and aimed to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear thermal rocket engines for space missions. The program was a joint effort between NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) and resulted in the development of several prototype nuclear thermal rocket engines.

Overall, these previous efforts and the technological advancements over the past 50 years have helped lay the foundation for the current collaboration between NASA and DARPA to test a nuclear-powered rocket engine. The knowledge gained from these earlier projects has played a significant role in shaping the development of new space nuclear technology, and the DRACO program represents a significant step forward in the advancement of nuclear thermal rocket engine technology.

Figure 4: This image of NERVA is from Nuclear Shuttle System Definitions Study
(Figure 4: This image of NERVA is from Nuclear Shuttle System Definitions Study, Phase III – Final Report – Volume II Concept and Feasibility Analysis – Part B Class 3 RNS – BOOK 2 System Definitions (1971))

NASA’s Fission Surface Power project

Moving forward, the NASA Fission Surface Power project is a joint initiative between NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and industry aimed at developing advanced space nuclear technologies. The project is aimed at harnessing nuclear power for space exploration and is a key component in NASA’s long-range goal for space transportation capability for the Earth-Moon economy.

As part of the Fission Surface Power project, the DOE awarded three commercial design efforts to develop nuclear power plant concepts that could be used on the surface of the Moon and, later, Mars. Advanced nuclear power plants will provide the necessary energy to support human activities and scientific missions on the lunar surface.

Additionally, NASA and DOE are working on another commercial design effort to advance higher-temperature fission fuels and reactor designs as part of a nuclear thermal propulsion engine. These design efforts are still under development and aim to support a longer-range goal for increased engine performance. The end goal is to use these advancements in fission technology to make space travel faster, more efficient, and more reliable.

The Fission Surface Power project is just one example of NASA’s commitment to developing advanced technologies that will enable humans to explore deep space. NASA’s collaboration with industry and government partners, like the DOE, ensures that new technologies are not only developed but are also tested and validated for practical use.

Overall, the NASA Fission Surface Power project represents an important step forward in the development of reliable and efficient space nuclear technologies. By harnessing nuclear power, NASA aims to enable new opportunities for human exploration and scientific discovery in deep space.

Figure 5: Illustration of a nuclear fission power system on Mars. (Credits: NASA)
(Figure 5: Illustration of a nuclear fission power system on Mars. (Credits: NASA))

In a Nutshell…

Conclusively, the partnership between NASA and DARPA to test a nuclear-powered rocket for future Mars missions marks a significant milestone in space exploration. The use of a nuclear thermal rocket engine offers several benefits including faster transit times, increased science payload capacity, and higher power for instrumentation and communication. These advancements will play a crucial role in helping NASA meet its Moon-to-Mars objectives and establish a space transportation capability for the Earth-Moon economy. Moreover, the successful demonstration of the DRACO program could have far-reaching implications for future space exploration efforts. The nuclear thermal propulsion technology could be used for not just crewed missions to Mars but also for other deep space missions, enabling humans to journey faster than ever before. This collaboration between NASA and DARPA brings together the best of both worlds, and the successful outcome of this project will be a major achievement in advancing space technology. The future looks bright for the space industry, and with more innovations like the DRACO program, we may be able to explore even more of our universe in the years to come.


Asteroid Mining – Economic Benefit and Fallout

Asteroid Mining
(Credit: Detlev Van Ravenswaay via Science Photo Library)

by Rida Fatima


Asteroids are the remaining crumbs from the formation of the planets, the remains of the youthful exuberance of our solar system. Much of the space period was spent ignoring asteroids in favour of the Moon and the much more glamorous planets. The asteroids, which are dark, irregular rocks that are difficult to see and locate, have long passed unnoticed by us. However, that was a misstep. They are essential to the destiny of our species; in fact, asteroids are linked to humanity’s survival and advancement, three options are listed ahead. They carry messages that date back to the formation of the solar system, long before our Earth existed, and where we are heading depends on how we got here. They are also stores of resources that could help us avoid shortages in the future. Last but not least, a small point: We could all be wiped off the face of the planet by an asteroid.

Asteroids are the byproducts of collisions between some of the first protoplanets, or “planetesimals,” which formed in large numbers when the solar system was only a few million years old. Many asteroids are therefore nothing more than heaps of fragmented debris kept together by their own weak gravity, which is around a million times weaker than the gravity we experience on Earth. Because asteroids are untainted messengers from those violent early times, unravelling the solar system’s volatile history is made easier by their presence. In contrast to the planets, the asteroids have not undergone significant change in the last few billion years. There are millions of them, and the vast majority of them orbit the Sun in a region known as the “Main Belt” that lies between Mars and Jupiter.


Asteroid mining is largely a speculative concept due to its enormous expense. While precise costs of commercial mining are still unknown, comparisons can be made with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which aims to collect samples from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. The mission is anticipated to take 7 years and cost over US$1 billion, even though it is only expected to return 400 grammes to 1 kilogramme of material. In order to cover such significant development expenditures, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries were unable to raise the necessary funds. In 2018 and 2019, respectively, other companies bought out both enterprises. Because of the incredibly costly minerals that asteroids have, despite its enormous expense, the development of asteroid mining technology may very well be a successful business. According to Asterank, which calculates the potential value of the roughly 6,000 asteroids that NASA currently monitors, mining just the top 10 most profitable asteroids—those that are both closest to Earth and have the most value and would result in a profit of around US$1.5 trillion. Additionally, there is enormous opportunity for growth. It has been estimated that one asteroid, 16 Psyche, holds US$700 quintillion in gold, or nearly US$93 billion for every person on earth.

Such technologies might also directly affect the environment. The utilisation of traditional underground mining methods, which result in acid mine drainage and leak dangerous substances like lead and arsenic into streams, would be completely replaced by asteroid mining. It may pave the way for the creation of solar-powered satellites, a potentially dependable source of renewable energy. The majority of the advancements in asteroid mining technologies have been made in the area of water extraction, reflecting worries about the global water crisis. Small-scale mining (ASM) enterprises that are not run by larger mining companies would be particularly affected by this. The use of child labour and deadly accidents within Congolese ASM activities has revealed the need for considerable change.

Economic Impacts

The implications of asteroid mining on the global economy are both positive and negative. On the one hand, it could produce substantial wealth for individuals; astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson claims that the first trillionaire will be a businessman engaged in asteroid mining. It could also destroy the global raw materials sector, which is currently valued at about US$660 billion.

All raw commodities would swiftly lose value as the market would be inundated with asteroid mining resources. Researchers from Tel Aviv University modelled a comparable scenario. They predicted that there would be a tremendous “global struggle for riches and power” in a society that mined asteroids. They arrived at this conclusion after performing a simulation in which one shipment of space minerals reduced the value of the price of gold on Earth by 50%. Notably, the Tel Aviv researchers also predicted that developing countries would suffer greatly from this battle because they rely heavily on the export of minerals and lack the resources to set up their own asteroid mining operations. This perspective, though it might be a feasible one, is not covered in great detail in the economics of space mining literature that is currently available. Asteroid mining might give one company dominance over the trading of a single natural resource, putting at risk the countries that currently rely on resource exports. For instance, some asteroids have platinum inside them that might be worth $50 billion. The leading producer of platinum in the world, South Africa, produced only 4.3 million ounces of the metal in 2018, worth about US$3.8 billion, at an average price of US$882.18 per ounce. The utilisation of South Africa’s platinum riches as well as its numerous other natural resources has considerably helped the country; the sector now employs over 451,000 people and accounts for 8.2 percent of its GDP. Future asteroid mining would become commonplace, which would have a negative impact on many South Africans’ ability to support themselves.

Zimbabwe, another big producer of platinum, would struggle significantly more if mining operations were seized. A wide range of developing economies are in danger as research is being done to find out how much other elements, like cobalt, reside on other asteroids. While, the people currently operating in dangerous mining conditions would probably be safer, but they would also lose their jobs. More significantly, those who lost their jobs would not be able to find new employment in the asteroid mining sector, especially low-income individuals who lack the necessary skills. As a result, these crucial low-skilled occupations for those in desperate need of money would be permanently lost.

Steps Forward

There are a few possible solutions to this problem. The first would entail increasing access to asteroid mining technologies for emerging economies so that more would be able to compete in a future space-oriented economy. Given that such activities would likely be significantly influenced by private enterprises, developing nations may need to sponsor the presence of such companies within their borders or support educational initiatives that would enable the establishment of similar companies domestically. The second choice would necessitate the diversification of economies, as many of them are currently quite dependent on mining technologies. However, given that this process is already occurring and moving very slowly, technology advancements that exclusively benefit wealthy countries would make it slower.

A third option would be to create a system through which wealthier countries that employ the technology would compensate less wealthy countries, as was outlined in the Tel Aviv University study. The last option is for legislators to work on responsible production regulation. This would guarantee that materials would only be produced at a rate that is equivalent to current production, even if mining asteroids in enormous quantities became feasible. This would also lessen the possibility of a situation known as a tragedy of the commons, in which excessive consumption depletes a resource’s availability. It is high time to bring all countries to the asteroid mining table; asteroid mining operations must also involve countries that stand to bear the brunt of its negative economic impacts so things will be divided and managed fairly, producing a less hectic result.


Dual Starships SN9 SN10

SN9 and SN10 Starships
(Image Credit: Elon Musk)

Last year, Musk realized that the pace of progress at the Boca Chica facility needed to be stepped up, and instituted 24 hour, round the clock shifts after hiring 252 professionals in 2 days, doubling the workforce. We have now seen the harvest of that concerted effort, and the amazing team there has started to really crank out the Starships.

This week we are treated to the next in a series of awe-inspiring sights, with two of the massive Starship prototypes deployed and ready for their time to shine. SN9 has been champing at the bit for days now, awaiting an increasingly elusive FAA approval for the next test flight, which will hopefully be this week. SN10, in amazingly close proximity to it’s younger sibling, is ready to show us all what it can do as well. Meanwhile, the first Superheavy booster is well under way in the high bay.

Elon Musk, now the richest man in the world, thankfully has the resources to continue and even further improve this pace of development. He seems to be in a terribly hurry. We should all be very interested as to why, and watch very seriously.

Starship High Altitude Flight Test

Starship High Altitude Test
( Image Credit: SpaceX)

In the three months since the previous Mars Gazette update, a grievous amount of time which the publisher will endeavor to reduce, there has been the typical and astonishing level of progress made by the other-worldly teams at SpaceX. Excitement has been building for weeks, leading up to the next step in the development of Starship, the craft that will soon begin taking supplies and then brave explorers to Mars and beyond. The planned 50,000 ft high altitude test was slated for today but got scrubbed at the last t-1 second mark due to a Raptor engine auto-abort. This conveniently provided enough time to report on this exciting and historic upcoming event! The test has been rescheduled for Wednesday, 12/9/2020 though of course that is subject to change.

Consider what any one of us has gotten accomplished in the past three months. I’ve read a couple of books, I’ve tried not to watch too much news, I’ve written some code that does moderately useful things. These men and women have created the prototype of a ship that will almost certainly take us to Mars in under 6 years. If you have been paying attention, it has almost become a truism to not bet against the God King of Mars. Elon says this is going to work, and I for one believe him!

Be sure to check the SpaceX webcast page tomorrow for updates, and a livestream that will be posted and activated shortly before the next launch attempt.

SpaceX Making Dreams Come True

Starship Hop Test
( Image Credit: SpaceX)

There have been a simply incredible number of breakthroughs, developments and achievements coming out of Boca Chica from the fine folks at SpaceX over the past few months, and the Gazette will start bringing them to you more rigorously. What more important news, one wonders, regarding Mars than the only team in the brief history of humanity who may be able to make multi-planetary life happen!

Above is pictured the first ‘hop test’ of the new Starship design. As usual, it went flawlessly, though it followed a series of explosive decompressions and other excitement on the test pad of previous Starship test models. These events are always confusingly mocked by observers, who completely fail to grasp that this is the fastest way to develop the product and reach success. Would-be competitors such as Blue Origin and (good gracious) Boeing are still drafting plans to have a series of meetings to discuss the design of their test stands, no doubt. Meanwhile, Musk and company are probably drawing up the plans for the Mars pizzerias!

SpaceX Astronaut Launch Success!

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley
(Photo Credit: SpaceX)
Well done SpaceX, that was incredible and the result of vision, a decade of hard work, and good old fashioned pioneer spirit. Talk about patriotism in these difficult times? Returning human launch capability to US soil is one of the most important and patriotic things I can imagine as we embark upon a renewed era of exploration and growth.

Every dime of finance and industry we have ever known has come from only the resources of this planet and now, if we keep playing our cards right, the possibilities exist on a scale hard to imagine, but inarguably vastly larger than what we have had up until now. Excited to see this happening in my lifetime and when I hopefully have a few years left to enjoy it and be involved. And also to set up the kids to really be a part of it!

Mars Starship Update from SpaceX

Starship Lunar Base
(Photo Credit: SpaceX)

Last week, Elon Musk gave a presentation on the state of the Starship project, standing directly in front of a beautiful, soon to be functional full scale prototype of the ship itself, from their Boca Chica facility. The video below is entirely worth a watch, and the Q&A portion is actually much more illuminating and detailed than the main presentation so be sure to stick around for that portion as well.

SpaceX continues to do incredible work on a schedule to boggle the mind. The voices which are sometimes pitched against them, out of ignorance, confusion or disbelief, are growing ever quieter as it becomes clear that “space is hard” is no longer a viable excuse for mediocre performance, embarrassing budget over-runs, and 50 year old disposable technology.

The next 6 months are sure to be incredibly important for SpaceX, and arguably mankind depending on your level of agreement with their philosophy. Not only should the crew dragon program begin launching actual humans to the Space Station, but we will likely see the first sub-orbital tests of Starship, with the Super Heavy booster soon to follow. Elon reminded everyone that the window for the light of consciousness on this planet to leave for the stars took 4.5 billion years to open, and it won’t be open for long so we have a responsibility to seize the moment. He also mentioned that they will commence building a fleet of ships as fast as they can. I often speculate about what he knows, that we do not! At least, one can have faith that if there is any way possible to save conscious thought, he’s the one most likely to succeed at that mission.


SpaceX Starhopper Test Flight Paves Mars Superhighway

(Image Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is at it again, this time with a successful second ‘hop test’ of their Starhopper prototype craft. This rather glib name doesn’t do justice to the astonishing spectacle which was the completely perfect 57 second flight of their ‘water tower’ shaped demo craft. Using a single super powerful new Raptor engine, the craft lifted off to a height of 500′, then maneuvered smoothly sideways another 150′ using almost entirely the thrust vector from that single engine as it was precisely adjusted and pivoted. During this entire portion of the flight, a beautiful mach diamond in the supersonic exhaust plume is visible coming from the engine – be sure to watch the embedded video below. As a finale, in a move we have come to expect from them, Starhopper touched down gently on a nearby landing pad, precisely in the middle of the tidy target area.

What’s the big deal, you may ask? This flight:

  • Demonstrated the thrust vector control capability of the Raptor engine
  • Was the first significant flight of a liquid methane powered rocket
  • Continued to diminish fears of launch failures through its perfection
  • Brought attention of politicians, who are taking notice of the money this work brings to districts
  • Further encouraged NASA to issue notices that upcoming flights should not be entirely reliant on the SLS.

Perhaps the most exciting part of all this, however, is the extremely strong step this test takes on the path to Mars. The Starship program of SpaceX is their bid to affordably transport tons and tons of material to the Red Planet, and eventually humans as well. The incredible success they have had developing this new technology from whole cloth, on a razor thin budget and on timetables that boggle the mind of ‘old space’ gives us all reason to hope that they (he) may actually be able to pull it off! And on a timescale that the author may actually get to see.


Lightsail 2, Mission Success!

Lightsail 2 Deploys over Earth
(Image Credit: The Planetary Society)

The good folks over at The Planetary Society have been engaged in some monumental citizen science, having recently launched their solar sail experimental demo craft on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy on June 25th 2019. After reaching the target orbit, and running several days of status checks, the boxing ring sized solar sail was successfully deployed on July 23rd! What is more important still is that on July 31st the sail achieved the goal of raising the orbit of the craft using only the power of the photons impacting upon it, thereby proving the effectiveness of solar sailing for the first time in history.

It makes me tremendously happy to see Bill Nye continuing to do important work, and to try so hard to be the science advocate that society needs. I hope he keeps up the good fight, and now that the cost barriers to these sorts of scientific achievements are getting lower by the month, we should be seeing more excellent crowd funded work from both his organization, as well as others around the world. An excellent bit of forward motion and positive news for a change!


SpaceX Falcon Heavy Milestone Launch 6/24/2019

Falcon Heavy Launch 6/24/2019
(Image Credit: SpaceX )

Set your kronoforms folks, because the next SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch is on the books for Monday, the 24th of June at 11:30pm Eastern. As always, there is no such thing as a ‘regular’ launch that doesn’t also have a lot of side-stories and goals to accomplish. Even though SpaceX has started to make this all look easy, they are accomplishing so much with every single launch it’s important to keep that in mind always!

This time around, they will be lofting 24 small government and academic satellites into orbit during what is codenamed the STP-2 mission, for the US Air Force. The launch, however, is more about certifying the use of previously-flown boosters for USAF missions which is a big deal. Those brand new to the spaceflight field may already take booster reuse as a given, but the idea that we are now far enough along with that technology that it is getting certified by the biggest of big government shows how important and recognized it has become. In many ways, this will further solidify that any launch system which is not reusable is simply not to be considered viable in the near future.

The upper stage, which houses and deploys the satellites, will itself be performing a grueling set of maneuvers requiring “four separate upper-stage engine burns, three separate deployment orbits, a final propulsive passivation maneuver, and a total mission duration of over six hours.” (teslarati). This will serve to further validate the capabilities of the launch system in the eyes of the USAF.

Because SpaceX is never content to just accomplish one extraordinary goal with their launch, they have also just announced that the center core booster will now be landing on Of Course I Still Love You at a distance of over 1240km out in the Atlantic ocean, instead of a modest 40km from shore which is more typical. OCISLY is being towed out there even now by tugboat Hollywood (Current Position Report), given the extreme distance. This will be an extremely risky and challenging recovery, and this distance breaks the previous SpaceX record for drone ship landing by over 30%.

This is such an important mission for SpaceX, they have a whole website all about it! Be sure to go there for more incredible info on the launch, the various items in the payload, and the hardware we all love. Of course watch the webcast if you can. A Falcon Heavy launch should be appreciated as the incredible breakthrough it is, every time.