The UK Space Agency (UKSA) is joining forces with Rolls-Royce for a unique study into how nuclear power and technologies could be used as part of space exploration.
This new research contract will see planetary scientists work together to explore the potential of nuclear power as a more plentiful source of energy, capable of making possible deeper space.
Nuclear propulsion, which would involve channelling fission energy to accelerate propellants, such as hydrogen, at huge speeds, has the potential to revolutionise space travel, UKSA said. By some estimates, this kind of engine could be twice as efficient as the chemical engines that currently power rockets.
Spacecraft powered by nuclear propulsion could, conceivably, make it to Mars in 3-4 months, of half the time of the fastest possible trip in a spacecraft using the current chemical propulsion.
Nuclear space power is expected to create new skilled jobs across the UK to support the burgeoning UK space economy.
“As we build back better from the pandemic, it is partnerships like this between business, industry and government that will help to create jobs and bring forward pioneering innovations that will advance UK spaceflight,” said UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway, “Nuclear power presents transformative possibilities for space exploration and this innovative study with Rolls-Royce could help to propel our next generation of astronauts into space faster and for longer, significantly increasing our knowledge of the Universe.”
UKSA CEO Dr Graham Turnock said: “Space nuclear power and propulsion is a game-changing concept that could unlock future deep-space missions that take us to Mars and beyond. This study will help us understand the exciting potential of atomic-powered spacecraft, and whether this nascent technology could help us travel further and faster through space than ever before."
Dave Gordon, UK senior vice president, Rolls-Royce Defence welcomed co-operation with UKSA. “We believe there is a real niche UK capability in this area and this initiative can build on the strong UK nuclear network and supply chain.” He added that it would not just mean a time saving but would also reduce the dose of radiation taken on by astronauts that would be making future trips to Mars or other planets. “The size of the dose increases the longer you spend in deep space, away from the bubble of protection given by the Earth’s magnetosphere.”
The appeal of a small nuclear power generator for propulsion also comes from the fact that power in space becomes increasingly precious with distance from the Sun. In the outer Solar System, sunlight becomes too dim for solar panels, and other technologies such as fuel cells are often too patchy as a source of energy.
Photo: The UK Space Agency (UKSA) is joining forces with Rolls-Royce to study how nuclear power could be used as part of space exploration. Credit: Rolls-Royce