At a recent government hearing, experts from US space agency NASA and the aerospace industry deliberated where the country stood when stacked against other nations developing new nuclear propulsion technology. They suggested the US needs to move quickly if it wants to keep up, Space.com reported.
Deep Space Travel with Space Nuclear Propulsion
"Strategic competitors including China are aggressively investing in a wide range of space technologies, including nuclear power and propulsion," said Bhavya Lal, NASA's senior advisor for budget and finance, at the congressional committee hearing, called "Accelerating deep space travel with space nuclear propulsion".
"The United States needs to move at a fast pace to stay competitive and to remain a leader in the global space community," she added.
NASA has previously discussed how nuclear propulsion technology could allow the agency to send humans to Mars more quickly than by using traditional chemical rockets.
NASA Mars Mission
According to the experts at the hearing, if NASA wants to get to Mars soon, time is of the essence.
"If the United States is serious about leading a human mission to Mars, we have no time to lose," US Rep Don Beyer (D-Va.), who chairs the committee, said.
Beyer added that over the past several years, Congress has continued to fund nuclear space technology development at NASA "with the goal of conducting a future in-space flight test".
While nuclear electric propulsion has many benefits, there are also risks involved with developing and using the technology.
"The risks associated with (nuclear propulsion) are a fundamental materials challenge that we think is quite likely solvable," Roger M. Myers, the co-chair of the Committee on Space Nuclear Propulsion Technologies, said during the hearing.
Myers added that the materials challenge includes developing or finding materials that can handle exposure to heat and other extreme elements associated with space, the report said.
This hearing took place following a report and claims alleging that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon in August. China has, however, denied these claims, the report said.