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Nuclear Propulsion Could Help Get Humans to Mars Faster



This is from a NASA press release dated February 12, 2021…

As NASA’s Perseverance rover homes in on the Red Planet, engineers on the ground are furthering potential propulsion technologies for the first human missions to Mars. NASA is looking at two types of nuclear propulsion systems – nuclear electric and nuclear thermal propulsion.

Nuclear electric propulsion systems use propellants much more efficiently than chemical rockets but provide a low amount of thrust. They use a reactor to generate electricity that positively charges gas propellants like xenon or krypton, pushing the ions out through a thruster, which drives the spacecraft forward. Using low thrust efficiently, nuclear electric propulsion systems accelerate spacecraft for extended periods and can propel a Mars mission for a fraction of the propellant of high thrust systems.

Nuclear Propulsion
Illustration of a Mars transit habitat and nuclear propulsion system that could one day take astronauts to Mars.
Credits: NASA

Nuclear thermal propulsion technology provides high thrust and twice the propellant efficiency of chemical rockets. The system works by transferring heat from the reactor to a liquid propellant. That heat converts the liquid into a gas, which expands through a nozzle to provide thrust and propel a spacecraft.

NASA, in coordination with the Department of Energy (DOE), is asking industry for preliminary reactor design concepts for a nuclear thermal propulsion system. The agencies plan to fund several efforts to explore different approaches. Future follow-on contracts will generate more detailed reactor designs and build preliminary testing hardware.

“While NASA’s immediate priority is returning humans to the Moon with the Artemis program, we are also investing in ‘tall pole’ technologies that could enable crewed missions to Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). “We look forward to seeing what innovations industry offer in nuclear propulsion as well as fission surface power via a forthcoming request for proposals for that technology.”

Human Missions to Mars


To date, only robotic explorers have traveled to Mars, without the need for returning to Earth. Waiting for optimal planetary alignment for the return trip would require astronauts to loiter at Mars for more than a year, stretching the round-trip mission to more than three years.

NASA’s goal is to minimize the time the crew travels between Earth and Mars to as close to two years as is practical. Space nuclear propulsion systems could enable shorter total mission times and provide enhanced flexibility and efficiency for mission designers.

To keep the round-trip crewed mission duration to about two years, at a minimum, NASA is looking at nuclear-enabled transportation systems to facilitate shorter-stay surface missions. The systems would take advantage of optimal planetary alignment for a low-energy transit for one leg of the trip and the new technology’s enhanced performance to make the higher-energy transit for the other leg.

It’s too soon to say what propulsion system will take the first astronauts to Mars, as there remains significant development required for each approach.

Illustration of a spacecraft with a nuclear-enabled propulsion system.

Illustration of a spacecraft with a nuclear-enabled propulsion system. Credits: NASA

Technology Readiness


NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, leads the agency’s space nuclear propulsion project in partnership with a DOE team that includes scientists and engineers from Idaho National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. STMD’s Technology Demonstration Missions program funds the technology development.

Nuclear electric propulsion builds on NASA’s work maturing solar electric propulsion thrusters and systems for Artemis, as well as the development of fission power for the lunar surface. Significant investment has also been made in relevant fuel and reactor technologies for small, terrestrial reactors that could be adapted to space reactors to power electric propulsion. The U.S. government’s aim to establish a fuel fabrication capability has a range of applications, including nuclear propulsion and fission surface power.

The Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, tests nuclear rocket fuel prototypes using non-nuclear heating instead of fission.
Credits: NASA/Mick Speer

Nuclear thermal propulsion has been on NASA’s radar for more than 60 years. The new hardware design and development phase pursued through a request for proposals released Feb. 12, 2021, builds on existing efforts to mature crucial elements of a nuclear thermal propulsion system.

NASA, in partnership with DOE, is developing and testing new fuels that use low-enriched uranium for space applications to see how they perform under the extreme thermal and radiation environments needed for nuclear thermal propulsion. NASA is working closely with DOE, industry, and universities to put fuel samples in research reactors at Idaho National Laboratory’s Transient Reactor Test (TREAT) facility and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Nuclear Reactor Laboratory for nuclear testing. The team is also performing non-nuclear testing in simulated reactors at Marshall test facilities.

“The reactor underpinning a nuclear thermal propulsion system is a significant technical challenge due to the very high operating temperatures needed to meet the propulsion performance goals,” explained Anthony Calomino, NASA’s nuclear technology portfolio lead within STMD.

While most of the engine operates at modest temperatures, materials in direct contact with the reactor fuel must be able to survive temperatures above 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit. NASA and DOE have been working with industry on a viable approach, and industry will now develop preliminary designs to meet this challenge.

Technology Infusion


“We’re exploring both nuclear electric and nuclear thermal propulsion options for crewed Mars missions,” Calomino said. “Each technology has its unique advantages and challenges that need to be carefully considered when determining the final preference.”

Whichever propulsion system is ultimately chosen, the fundamentals of nuclear propulsion can enable robust and efficient exploration beyond the Moon. NASA will continue to develop, test, and mature various propulsion technologies to reduce risk and inform the Mars transport architecture.

Source: NASA


NASA, Boeing to Host Media Briefing, Provide Starliner Update

NASA and Boeing will host a media teleconference at 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, March 29, to provide an update on the Crew Flight Test (CFT) of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station.



The Starliner team works to finalize the mate of the crew module and new service module for NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test that will take NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams to and from the International Space Station.

NASA and Boeing will host a media teleconference at 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, March 29, to provide an update on the Crew Flight Test (CFT) of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station.

Managers will share a mission status and discuss upcoming milestones ahead of Starliner’s first flight with astronauts prior to certifying the spacecraft and systems for regular crew rotation flights to the space station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Audio coverage of the teleconference will livestream on the agency’s website.

The briefing participants are:

  • Steve Stich, manager, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program
  • Joel Montalbano, manager, NASA’s International Space Station Program
  • Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager, CST-100 Starliner, Boeing

To participate in the call, media must RSVP no later than one hour prior to the start of the event to: [email protected].

The Starliner spacecraft will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The demonstration flight will carry two NASA astronaut test pilots, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, and will prove the end-to-end capabilities of the Starliner system.

Find out more about the Commercial Crew Program at:


Source: NASA

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A Spectacular Aurora dazzles Skywatchers

Geomagnetic storm on the sun caused a stunning display of the Aurora Borealis to be visible as far south as New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Virginia.



On March 23, 2023, a geomagnetic storm on the sun caused a stunning display of the Aurora Borealis to be visible as far south as New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Virginia. The Northern Lights, a natural phenomenon caused by charged particles from the sun interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field, are usually only visible in the far north. However, this storm caused a rare opportunity for those in more southern regions to witness the incredible light show.


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NASA Helps Fund Minority Institutions Preparing Students for College

High school students from traditionally underrepresented and underserved communities will have a path to pursue careers in STEM with help from NASA.



MUREP PSI students constructing a drone during Fayetteville State University’s 2022 summer residential experience.
Credits: NASA

High school students from traditionally underrepresented and underserved communities will have a path to pursue careers in STEM with help from NASA. The agency announced Monday it has selected seven Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and one Predominantly Black Institution (PBI) to receive more than $3 million in funding to strengthen their support for students in those communities in precollege summer programs around the nation.

“As we explore the cosmos for the benefit of all humanity, NASA remains steady in its effort to lift as we soar. NASA is not only committed to inspiring the Artemis Generation – we’re working to make sure they have the tools they need to succeed,” said NASA’s Senior Advisor for Engagement and Equity Shahra Lambert. “This funding will help open doors of opportunity for high school students across the country to help prepare and empower them for the future.”

MUREP Precollege Summer Institute (PSIs) uses evidence-based strategies to enhance high school students’ precollege performance, prepare them for college entrance, and ultimately help them achieve success in their higher education pursuits and in science, technology, engineering, and math careers.

“This project gives students an opportunity to experience what it’s like to live on a college campus, attend classes, and build relationships with professors and like-minded peers,” said Torry Johnson, MUREP project manager. “What makes this program special is that it’s tied to NASA research. Students will be participating in engineering design challenges and research related to NASA missions with support from NASA subject matter experts.”

The selected institutions and their proposed projects under NASA’s MUREP (Minority University Research and Education Project) are:

Albany State University, Georgia

ASU Accelerated Research Training Experience and Mentorship in STEM (ARTEMIS) 2.0 PSI Scholars Program


Albany State University (ASU) propose a two-week residential camp for students interested in pursuing a STEM-based career. Using the theme “Mission to Mars,” students will participate in NASA activities related to power generation and transmission; remote and autonomous vehicles and rocket propulsion; the geology of Earth and other planets; and the biology and chemistry of space travel. Students will become immersed in the expectations of life as a STEM student at ASU, gain useful knowledge about the campus, and build support networks to help ensure success in their life and in academics. ASU was awarded $425,000 for its proposal.

Clayton State University, Morrow, Georgia

Artificial Intelligence Study in Earth Exploration Summer Academy

Clayton State University proposes to host a NASA-themed summer program for minority high school students. This program will provide eight-day summer residential STEM camp exposing participants to college life, NASA research, Earth data, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Participants will gain an understanding of NASA’s missions and learn how to apply AI technology to solve real-world problems in Earth science. Clayton State University was awarded $425,000 for its proposal.

Fayetteville State University, North Carolina

Fayetteville State University’s NASA MUREP Precollege Summer Institute: Cutting-Edge Technologies for Examining Climate Change (FSU-CTECC)


Fayetteville State University (FSU) proposes two-week long residential summer STEM camps over the five-year period of the project. Each year, 20 high school students will be recruited from high schools in Cumberland County and its surrounding counties in North Carolina. Project partners include NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and multiple academic organizations and industries to provide STEM workshops for the students. FSU was awarded $423,487 for its proposal.

Lincoln University, Jefferson City, Missouri

Digital Agriculture, Data Science, and Robotics: Applied Research and Training for Enhancing Motivation in Science (DDR-ARTEMIS)

In collaboration with the University of Missouri, Lincoln University proposed two identical and intensive nine-day residential summer camps designed to offer keys for success for the participating students to advance their careers in STEM fields as undergraduate students and beyond. Each summer camp will accommodate 12 students for a total of 24 students each year. The educational program will provide hands-on experience for underrepresented minority students in digital agriculture, data science, and robotics to develop a broad understanding of STEM careers along with professional development activities and interaction with STEM professionals and entrepreneurs. Lincoln University was awarded $424,403 for its proposal.

MUREP PSI students completing a robotics engineering design activity during Meharry Medical College’s 2022 summer residential experience.
Credits: NASA

Meharry Medical College, Nashville, Tennessee

Collaborative Interactive Data Science Academy

With the goal to stimulate curiosity in the cross-cutting field of data science and emerging technologies, Meharry Medical College proposed a discovery-based summer experience that implements virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality control of robotic systems using NASA geospatial and extra-terrestrial big data. This summer program will expose high school students to NASA research and data science tools; build statistical and critical thinking skills; and inspire the next generation of explorers, researchers, and data scientists. Meharry Medical College was awarded $418,448 for its proposal.


Tuskegee University, Alabama

Tuskegee’s Summer Institute for Increasing Diversity Among Incoming STEM Undergraduates

The focus of Tuskegee’s Summer Institute is to prepare students for college and retain students in biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The project will equip prospective college students with basic skills necessary for success in college and close the STEM education gap for students from underserved communities. Tuskegee was awarded $424,939 for its proposal.

University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Princess Anne

HAWKS MUREP Precollege Summer Institute (PSI)

The University of Maryland, Eastern Shore (UMES) proposes to establish a two-week residential program designed to increase the participation and retention of historically underserved and underrepresented high school students in STEM. Learning activities are aligned to NASA’s themes of space exploration, aeronautics, and Earth science. Students will have the opportunity to visit NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. UMES partnered with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility for mentoring, job shadowing, and involvement in real-life STEM projects, research, and activities. UMES was awarded $425,000 for its proposal.


University of The Virgin Islands, Charlotte Amalie

The NASA-UVI Pre-College Engineering Summer Institute

The focus of this proposal is to enroll a minimum of 20 students from the public high schools on St. Thomas and St. Croix in a one-week summer residential experience on-campus at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). Students will be exposed to the fundamentals of scientific and engineering methods, engage in discussions about career paths, develop relationships with STEM professionals in the U.S. Virgin Islands and NASA, and engage in professional development activities designed to help them prepare for a successful transition to college. UVI was awarded $424,998 for its proposal.

Administered by NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement, MUREP supports and invests in the research, academic, and technology capabilities of minority-serving institutions. Learn more:

Source: NASA


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