A new NASA rocket engine designed with Canadian help may allow astronauts to one day travel to Mars in just 39 days, rather than the six months experts predict the journey would take under conventional rocket power.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said the ion propulsion engine pushes a smaller amount of fuel out the back of a spacecraft at a much faster rate, which both conserves fuel and dramatically decreases travel time.

Because Mars and Earth pass close together every two years, experts believed that astronauts would have to travel to the Red Planet and then wait a year to make the return trip.

However, the new engine may allow astronauts to make a return trip to Mars during a single close pass.

"If you can cut that voyage down to just a matter of seven or eight weeks then of course you can carry way less stuff," Hadfield said Tuesday on Canada AM. "And if you don't have to carry so much fuel to slow down when you get there or to bring you back, it just scopes the whole thing down to where it becomes maybe a practical problem to solve rather than an almost an impossibility."

While the VASIMR engine is designed by Houston-based company Ad Astra Rocket Co., the engine's power generators are built by Halifax company Nautel Ltd.

With ion propulsion, Hadfield said, the engine runs for the entire trip.

"The big difference is you don't just fire your engines for 10 minutes and then coast for six months. You can continue to thrust the whole way," Hadfield said. "And what you do is thrust for 16 days or 18 days going one way and then you turn around backwards and you slow down. So you keep your engine running the whole way."

While the engine has been tested successfully on the ground, it must still undergo testing in space.

"Hopefully we will be using it on the space station in about 2013," Hadfield said. "And then we can test a full-scale model of the rocket that could be big enough to take a spaceship to Mars."

Before astronauts can travel to Mars, they will require new spacesuits that can handle the planet's extreme conditions. According to NASA, temperatures can vary from -125 degrees Celsius near the poles during the winter to 20 degrees Celsius at midday near the equator. Mars' average temperature is about -60 C.

NASA is developing an all-purpose suit that can protect astronauts during launch, handle atmospheric conditions during spacewalks, and exploration on Mars. Suits are currently being tested on Earth, in desert conditions.