Mike Houts, left, project manager for nuclear systems at the Marshall Center, discusses upcoming testing with Bill Emrich, who manages Marshall’s Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator, or NTREES. Credit: MSFC/Fred Deaton

NASA researchers studying advanced nuclear rocket technologies

January 10, 2013 by Rick Smith

(Phys.org)—Advanced propulsion researchers at NASA are a step closer to solving the challenge of safely sending human explorers to Mars and other solar system destinations.

By using an innovative test facility at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., researchers are able to use non-nuclear materials to simulate nuclear thermal rocket fuels—ones capable of propelling bold new exploration missions to the Red Planet and beyond.

The Nuclear Cryogenic Propulsion Stage team is tackling a three-year project to demonstrate the viability of nuclear propulsion system technologies. A nuclear rocket engine uses a nuclear reactor to heat hydrogen to very high temperatures, which expands through a nozzle to generate thrust. Nuclear rocket engines generate higher thrust and are more than twice as efficient as conventional chemical rocket engines.

Read more: NASA researchers studying advanced nuclear rocket technologies — phys.org.

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