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New Nuclear Engine Concept Could Reach Mars in 3 Months

USNC-Tech has developed a nuclear engine that could reduce travel time to Mars by more than half.

Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies (USNC-Tech), a Seattle-based nuclear tech company, has delivered a concept to NASA that it believes can reduce travel time to Mars by about half — to three months rather than approximately seven with the best current technology.

The company says its Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) engine concept is safer than other similar proposed models and that it is much more efficient than a chemical rocket.

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Revolutionizing deep space travel

USNC-Tech's concept is aimed at helping to revolutionize deep space travel by providing a more efficient alternative to the chemical rockets we currently rely on to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond.

As chemical rockets are already near their theoretical limits, NTPs have been proposed as an alternative that can greatly increase the efficiency and speed of future spacecraft. The challenge, however, is in producing a nuclear reactor that is safe enough and light enough to use in space.

UNSC-Tech's concept uses a Fully Ceramic Micro-encapsulated (FCM) fuel, based on High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU), to power the engine's reactor. The fuel is encapsulated into particles coated with zirconium carbide (ZrC).

The company says this fuel can operate at higher temperatures, allowing for safer reactor designs and a high thrust and specific impulse that was only previously obtainable with highly-enriched uranium. What's more, the fuel can be produced with current supply chains and manufacturing plants.

Reducing barriers to full-scale deployment

The concept is aimed at NASA, the US Department of Defense, and private space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin.

USNC-Tech says the concept was "designed to enable a successful near-term system demonstration and reduce barriers to full-scale deployment,"

"Key to USNC-Tech’s design is a conscious overlap between terrestrial and space reactor technologies," Dr. Paolo Venneri, CEO of USNC-Tech explained in a press release. "This allows us to leverage the advancements in nuclear technology and infrastructure from terrestrial systems and apply them to our space reactors."

Though USNC-Tech says its new concept engine is more reliable than previous NTP designs and can produce twice the specific impulse — a measure of rocket efficiency — as a chemical rocket, we're likely still a long way away from seeing a six month round trip to Mars becoming a reality.

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