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The Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT) was active from 1959 to 1994, when it was taken offline. In 2017, the reactor was restarted, bringing back a key component for advanced nuclear fuels and reactor testing in the United States.

Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory are playing a key role in developing a propulsion system that could someday power a manned mission to Mars.

The SIRIUS test program is researching nuclear thermal propulsion. It includes several dozen people at INL and also involves researchers at other national laboratories such as Los Alamos and Oak Ridge national laboratories in New Mexico and Tennessee, respectively.

“This is a DOE-wide support effort for NASA,” said Douglas Burns, the U.S. Department of Energy’s coordinator for nuclear thermal propulsion.

The testing is being done at the Transient Reactor Test Facility, or TREAT, at the DOE’s desert complex west of Idaho Falls. Researchers conducted the first test, at half-power, on June 19. The next critical date will be in August, when researchers will test the fuel at full power. Burns said researchers would then continue testing it over a period of weeks, then examine the fuel to see how well it stood up to stresses.

“If (it) goes as we’re hoping, we’ll get data saying this fuel is capable of supporting a nuclear thermal propulsion system,” Burns said.

The technology works by heating liquid hydrogen to a high temperature by flowing it through the reactor and then blowing it through a rocket nozzle to produce thrust. Running the reactor for 10 to 15 minutes, Burns said, should produce enough thrust to leave earth’s orbit.

“Basically, you take a nuclear reactor, and you start it up in outer space once it’s in orbit,” he said.

If the technology works out, Burns said, it could be used to power spacecraft in the future to send people and equipment to Mars. Potential advantages of the technology, Burns said, include that you could turn around on the way to Mars if something goes wrong instead of having to go there to get more rocket fuel. Also, he said it could let a craft get to Mars more quickly and while producing less radiation than other alternatives, potentially giving astronauts more time to explore Mars itself.

Nuclear thermal propulsion research isn’t INL’s only involvement in NASA’s Mars exploration efforts. The radioisotope power system that will power the next Mars rover, which is set to be launched in July 2020, is also being assembled and tested at INL’s Materials and Fuels Complex.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.