A company from Seattle called Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies (USNC-Tech) has developed a concept for a new type of propulsion unit and delivered details to NASA. The company claims that the new Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) engine is safer and more reliable than previous designs.
USNC-Tech says the concept engine offers far greater efficiency than a chemical rocket and could revolutionize deep space travel. Using the rocket, the company says that the travel time between Earth and Mars could be reduced to only three months. A big challenge for an engine using nuclear technology is to build a nuclear reactor light enough and safe enough to operate outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.
This is particularly important when the spacecraft is carrying a crew. Dr. Michael Eades, the principal engineer at USNC-Tech, says the new concept engine is more reliable than previous MTP designs and produces twice the specific impulse of a chemical rocket. Specific impulse is a measurement of efficiency for rockets.
The concept engine uses Fully Ceramic Micro-encapsulated fuel to power the reactor. The fuel is based on High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium derived from reprocessed civilian nuclear fuel and enriched to between five and 20 percent. That enrichment is higher than civilian reactors but less than that of Naval reactors. The fuel is then encapsulated into particles that are coated with zirconium carbide.
USNC-Tech says the fuel is more rugged than conventional nuclear fuels and can operate at high temperatures. The fuel design can produce a safer reactor design and high thrust along with specific impulse previously only obtainable via highly-enriched uranium. The fuel could also be produced using the current supply chain and manufacturing plants. The company hopes the new engine can reduce space travel time and enable exploration of our solar system.