Humanity's next big step could be made possible by next-generation nuclear technology, said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
At today's sixth National Space Council (NSC) meeting (August 20), the NASA chief praised the potential of thermal nuclear propulsion, which would use the heat released by fission reactions to generate propellants such as hydrogen to accelerate to enormous speeds.
Such powered spacecraft could potentially reach Mars in just three to four months – about half of the fastest possible ride in a conventional chemical-drive vehicle, said Rex Geveden, president and CEO of BWX Technologies Inc.
Related: Superfast Spacecraft Propulsion Concepts (Images)
And that's a big deal for NASA, working to bring astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.
"This is absolutely groundbreaking for what NASA wants to achieve," said Bridenstine. "This gives us the opportunity to truly protect life when we talk about the radiation dose when traveling between Earth and Mars."
Of course, the longer astronauts remain in space, this dose increases away from the earth's magnetosphere. And recent research suggests that the radiation dose accumulated by Mars-bound astronauts could damage their brain and affect their mood, as well as their ability to learn and remember.
Bridenstine also emphasized the utility of nuclear thermal power for applications closer to home. For example, the increased power could potentially cause vehicles circling around the earth to evade from the firing line of anti-satellite weapons.
Such weapons are being developed by both China and Russia, with Joseph Maguire, the American, acting director of the National Intelligence Service, said during today's NSC meeting.
"Both countries consider the ability to attack space systems and services as part of their broader efforts to deter or defeat an opponent in combat," said Maguire. "In short, the threat to US and Allied space systems continues to grow."
In the area of national security, Geveden said that small fission reactors could also supply off-grid power to forward and remote controlled military bases.
"You can quite conceivably use a compact high-temperature gas reactor to power a B. a gun with directional energy," Geveden said. [The U.S. is] Use diesel fuel now, but that's not sustainable in a sustained battle.
This reference to powerful lasers caught Bridenstine's attention, asking Geveden if that was the case tech could be used to distract an incoming asteroid and desorb space debris, the potential is definitely there in both cases, Geveden replied, Bridenstine then turned to Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the NSC, "I think, Mr. Vice President, there is an amazing opportunity that the United States of America should use," said Bridenstine.
The nation could already In May, the Budget Committee approved a bill that will provide NASA with $ 22.3 billion ̵
Nuclear power is not to be confused with the thermoelectric radioisotope generator (RTG). RTGs convert the heat generated by the radioactive decay of plutonium into electricity, which then powers spacecraft instruments and other equipment. NASA has been using RTGs for decades. They have powered some of the agency's most famous planetary researchers, including the Voyager twin probes, the Cassini Saturn spacecraft, and the Rover Curiosity Mars.
Other nuclear technologies could continue to provide exploration in the future. For example, researchers are developing a small fusion reactor that could power outposts on the Moon and Mars with crew. This "Kilopower reactor" could be ready for a flight demonstration in 2022 if NASA so wishes, project members recently said.
The NSC helps steer the nation's space policy. President Donald Trump reinstated the Council in 2017. It was last active in the early 1990s.
Mike Walls's book on the search for a foreign life, " Out There " (Grand Central Publishing, 2018, illustrated by Karl Tate ) is available now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall . Follow us on Twitter @SpaceTotcom or Facebook .