Nasa and DARPA could test the thermal rocket engine as soon as 2027, with a view towards unlocking the key to enable future Mars missions.  

The two space organisations will partner on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, programme, designed to benefit both agencies and outline roles, responsibilities, and processes aimed at speeding up development efforts. 

The project is intended to develop a pioneering propulsion system for space travel far different from the chemical systems prevalent since the dawn of modern rocketry.

“With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,” said Nasa administrator Bill Nelson. “Congratulations to both Nasa and DARPA on this exciting investment, as we ignite the future, together.” 

A nuclear thermal engine would rely on a nuclear reactor, using atomic fission to heat up propellant...