Science & Tech

Bimodal Nuclear Propulsion has the potential to send missions to Mars in 45 days

NASA intends to launch a mission to Mars in 45 years using Bimodal Nuclear Propulsion.

Bimodal Nuclear Propulsion: What is it?

  • A few years ago, NASA relaunched its programme to develop bimodal nuclear propulsion. Bimodal nuclear propulsion is a two-part system comprised of an NTP and a NEP component.
  • This system is expected to allow Mars transits in 100 days.
  • NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), a new programme launched by the US space agency in 2023, has chosen a nuclear concept for Phase I development.
  • This new bimodal nuclear propulsion system will employ a “wave rotor topping cycle,” which has the potential to reduce transit times to Mars to 45 days.

How will nuclear propulsion work?

  • Nuclear propulsion is divided into two categories: nuclear-thermal propulsion (NTP) and nuclear-electric propulsion (NEP) (NEP).
  • The NTP system includes a nuclear reactor that will heat liquid hydrogen (LH2) propellant to create ionised hydrogen gas (plasma), which will then be channelled through nozzles to generate thrust.
  • NEP is reliant on a nuclear reactor to power a Hall-Effect thruster (ion engine).
  • It will produce an electromagnetic field that will ionise and accelerate an inert gas (such as xenon) to produce thrust.

Benefits offered

  • Nuclear propulsion has significant advantages over traditional chemical propulsion.
  • These advantages include increased fuel efficiency, a higher specific impulse rating, and infinite energy density (virtually).
  • The advantage of NEP over NTP and conventional chemical propulsion systems is that it has a Specific impulse of more than 10,000 seconds (ISP).
  • ISP measures how efficiently a reaction mass engine (a rocket that uses propellant or a jet engine that uses fuel) generates thrust.

Advantages of manned missions

  • A crewed mission to Mars using traditional propulsion technology could take up to three years.
  • A transit time of 45 days, on the other hand, reduces the overall mission time to months rather than years.
  • This will significantly reduce the major risks associated with Mars missions, such as radiation exposure, time spent in microgravity, and related health concerns.

These nuclear propulsion systems have limitations.

  • This means that NEP systems can sustain thrust for nearly three hours.
  • However, when compared to conventional rockets and NTP systems, the thrust level is lower.
  • Under ideal conditions, the thermal energy conversion rate in outer space is only 30-40%.
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