Russia wants to make a nuke-powered spaceship that could reach Mars in 45 days

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Mar 13, 2016, 7:52 PM EDT (Updated)

The biggest problems with a Mars mission are that it’ll take approximately 18 months one-way, and be even harder to carry enough fuel to actually make it back home. Well, the Russians might have figured out a way to get there a whole lot faster — and actually make it home, too.

The trick? Use a fission-powered, nuclear engine like the ones developed back in the late 1960s, which have been used to launch satellites. Both the U.S. and Russia had programs in the 1960s and 1970s (with Russia’s remaining active until the 1980s). Now Russia is looking to the past for inspiration for humanity’s spacefaring future.

Russia’s nuclear corporation Rosatom has announced plans to build a nuclear engine that could reach the prototype phase by 2025. These engines are typically used for light satellites, but the team seems to think they can scale it up. The best part? If it actually works, it’d be able to reach Mars in 45 days and still have more than enough gas to turn around and make it back home — all before a traditional, gas-guzzling engine could make it halfway there.

As Wired notes, the proposed engine (sadly, Rosatom didn’t actually announce any detailed specs) would almost certainly generate heat by splitting atoms. That heat would then be used to burn hydrogen (or another chemical). It’s on the same track as chemical propulsion, just faster. Of course, nuclear energy has its share of dangers, but the benefits could be huge (if they can make it safe, and as crash-proof as possible).

There’s just one problem: There currently isn’t enough funding to actually complete a project of this scope (i.e. ship design, launch, etc.), though this could still serve as a great catalyst for the concept. Long shot though it may be, the tech could be the perfect solution to the obvious problem with traditional rockets: You need more fuel to go farther and higher, which adds more weight to the rig, which requires more fuel to launch.

Which, yeah, you get the point.

(Via Wired, Rosatom)