Plans by US space agency NASA to develop nuclear energy sources that can be fitted onboard space ships have been discussed by the scientific and technical subcommittee of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs.

Its experts were informed of the earmarking in NASA’s 2003 budget for a new nuclear systems initiative. This two-part programme will:

• Develop a new generation of radioisotope power systems for generating electricity for spacecraft and their scientific instruments for missions to planets and deep space.

• Create a uranium-fuelled fission reactor and advanced electric propulsion technolo-gies to significantly improve future capabilities to explore the solar system.

The announcement comes as a sub-committee working group has completed a report reviewing international documents and national decisions regarding nuclear power sources in outer space.

Meanwhile, the working group is to continue working into next year to develop recommendations on how to influence the introduction of nuclear power in space, which could be considered by the office’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and later by the organisation’s member countries.

One particular concern is likely to be how to ensure the safety of space objects with nuclear power sources on board, if they collide with space debris.