The next giant leap for humanity can be activated by next-generation nuclear technologies, said NASA Administrator Jim Bridestin.
During the sixth meeting of the National Space Council (NSC) today (August 20), NASA chief praised the potential of nuclear thermal propulsion that would harness the heat released by fission reactions to accelerate fuels like hydrogen at enormous speeds.
A spacecraft powered by such engines could reach Mars in just three to four months – about half the time of the fastest possible trip in a traditional chemical propulsion vehicle, said NSC panelist Rex Gediven, president and CEO of BWX Technologies Inc.
Related: Spacecraft Propulsion Concepts (Images)
And it's a big deal for NASA working for to get astronauts on board Mars in the 2030s.
"It's an absolute game changer for what NASA is trying to accomplish," Bridenstein says. "It gives us the ability to really protect life when we talk about the radiation dose when we travel between Earth and Mars."
That dose increases, of course, the longer astronauts spend in deep space, away from the protective a magnetosphere bubble on Earth. And recent studies show that the radiation dose accumulated by Mars-related astronauts can harm their brain affecting their mood as well as their ability to learn and remember.
Bridenstein also emphasized the benefits of nuclear thermal propulsion. for applications closer to home. For example, increased power could potentially allow an Earth craft to steer beyond the line of fire of anti-satellite weapons, he said.
Such weapons are being developed by both China and Russia Joseph Maguire, acting from the US This was said by the Director of National Intelligence during the NSC meeting today.
"Both sides consider the ability to attack space systems and services as part of their broader effort to deter or defeat an enemy in battle," Maguire says. "In short, the threat to US and allied space systems continues to grow."
In the field of national security, Goveden says that small fission reactors can also provide off-grid power to front and remote military bases.
"You can safely imagine that you are using a compact, high-temperature gas reactor to power, for example, a directed energy weapon," Gaveden said. [The U.S. is] using diesel now, but this is not sustainable in a long battle. "
This reference to high-power lasers caught Bridenstein's attention. He asked Gedven if such technology could be used to deflect an incoming asteroid and to deorbite space junk. The potential is definitely there in both cases," Geden replied. 1
In May, the Committee The House Appropriations Bill approved a bill that spends $ 22.3 billion for NASA – including $ 19459005 for $ 125 million for the development of nuclear thermal propulsion technology. Congress also provided $ 100 million for the same purpose in fiscal 2019
Nuclear thermal propulsion should not be confused with the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). RTGs convert the heat generated by the radioactive decay of plutonium into electricity, which then supplies the instruments of the spacecraft and other weapons. NASA has been using RTG for decades; they power some of the agency's most famous explorers on the planet, including the Voyager twin probe, the Cassini Saturn spacecraft, and the Curiosity Mars rover.
Other nuclear technologies may support the study in the future. For example, researchers are developing a small thermonuclear reactor that can power the crews of the moon and Mars. This "Kilopower reactor" could be ready for a flight demonstration in 2022. if NASA wishes, project team members said recently.
The NSC helps to guide the space policy of the country. President Donald Trump reinstated the council in 2017; it was last active in the early 1990s.
Mike Wall's book on the search for extraterrestrial life, " There " (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate ), is now out. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall . Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook .