A new type of nuclear reactor could make it possible for us to travel to Mars in as little as two weeks.

Yigal Ronen, professor of nuclear engineering at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, believes that a little-known isotope called americium-242m (Am-242m) could power future robotic or human spacecraft more efficiently than chemical or nuclear propulsion sources.

Am-242m can sustain nuclear fission even when it is formed into thin sheets less than a micron (millionth of a meter) thick. The fission it produces makes it possible to heat materials such as hydrogen, which can be used as a propellant. The thinness of the sheets would make it easy to take along plenty of fuel for a round trip.
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The harsh conditions that now exist on the surface of the planet mean that any remaining traces of life will be far beneath the surface, and Martian soil is too unstable for conventional drills. Holes bored the usual way are likely to collapse. “The soil is a mixture of sand, dust and rocks cemented together with salt minerals,” says John Bridges, who studies Martian geology at the Natural History Museum in London. “For the most part, it’s like digging in a sandpit.”

Now engineers have developed a long, hot spear that can melt through Martian soil and rocks to depths where they hope to find evidence of past life on Mars.
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