Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies, a company based in Seattle just developed a new rocket engine that could revolutionize space travel. They have delivered the concept for this new NTP (Nuclear-Thermal Propulsion) engine to NASA for analysis. The company claims that this design will be safer as well as considerably efficient than previous ones.
With proper implementation, this engine will realize the concept of nuclear space travel. Not only will we be able to travel farther well travel faster as well. With the help of this concept, NASA will be able to explore deep space. The company claims that this engine will reduce the Mars trip to just three months of time.
Since the starting idea of space travel, we have used chemical rockets. These are the engines that use some sort of fuel and by burning it they produce the required thrust. As we reach further into space, chemical rockets have started to show their limitations. Therefore, researchers are looking for a new way to enable space travel. One such alternative can be electric systems like the ones we use here on the ground. However, as it turns out these systems produce relatively low thrust making them less than ideal for the task.
The next option for unlimited energy is obviously nuclear. The small atoms contain so much energy that if used the right way can solve all our energy deficiency problems. However, it does come at a price, not only is the hardware more delicate this task requires much more complex engineering. As a result, many companies around the world are looking to build an engine that is both light enough to carry into space as well as safe enough to be with. These are the two main factors to look at when companies design Nuclear-Thermal Propulsion engines.
The New Design:
Dr. Michael Eades the head engineer at Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies explained that their concept for nuclear engines is far more reliable than previous designs. In addition to that, it can produce twice the amount of specific impulse that a chemical rocket produces. For those wondering Specific Impulse is a measure of efficiency for rocket design.
The engine will be powered by a special fuel called Fully Ceramic Micro-encapsulated (FCM).
This fuel is based on High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU), which comes from reprocessed civilian nuclear fuel and is enriched to between 5 and 20 percent. The fuel is then encapsulated into particles coated with zirconium carbide (ZrC). There is a special reason for using this fuel. The company claims that this type of fuel is more durable than conventional nuclear fuel and can withstand higher temperatures.
They hope that these new engines will reduce space travel time by a lot which means that we will be able to make even longer trips. For example a crewed mission to Mars arriving in as little as three months. In addition to that, they are also looking for other commercial uses for the engine such as the US Department of Defense, allowing for more ambitious private missions.
Dr. Paolo Venneri, CEO of USNC-Tech said that the “Key to USNC-Tech’s design is a conscious overlap between terrestrial and space reactor technologies. This allows us to leverage the advancements in nuclear technology and infrastructure from terrestrial systems and apply them to our space reactors.”
Hopefully, the concept will become a reality in the near future. Who knows the first manned flight to Mars Might use a similar system to this. For more information on the concept check out their official website.