New Nuclear Engine Could Cut Time to Travel to Mars Down to Just Three Months
The Seattle-based energy, power, and aerospace engineering expert ‘Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation’ (USNC) has presented a design for a new nuclear engine that could cut the time needed for traveling to Mars down to three months. To better understand the gravity of that claim, currently, the trip to Mars takes around seven months.
The fuel of the new engine would be High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU), and it would come in the form of ceramic microcapsules made out of zirconium carbide. This way, the engine would be lightweight enough and also safe to use alongside the crew without fearing for their health and safety. The fuel could be derived from reprocessed civilian nuclear fuel and enriched between 5% and 20%, which is even less than what is used on naval nuclear reactors.
While nuclear power still comes with intrinsic risks and dangers, the HALEU fuel proposal was deemed relatively safe by the U.S. Department of Energy, as it should be stable even in very high temperatures. This means that the design could be taken to the next stage of development.
To achieve their goal, the USNC team of designers has made a conscious overlap between terrestrial and space reactor technologies, taking advantage of all the available advancements in both fields and also nuclear technology in the past couple of years.
The problem that remains is cosmic radiation, as this is something that astronauts traveling to Mars will have to endure for extended periods of time. Elon Musk has also stated something along those lines recently, citing evidence that cosmic radiation is intense enough to worry about it. Building a thick enough shell for the crew capsule isn’t a simple solution, as taking stuff outside the Earth’s atmosphere is hard and costly enough even when the weight is as stripped as possible.