Stars, galaxy and constellations

UK Space Agency to investigate nuclear-powered space exploration

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The UK Space Agency (UKSA) is to partner with Rolls-Royce in the first study into how nuclear power could be used to push the boundaries of space exploration.

Under the partnership, planetary scientists will work together to explore whether nuclear power could be used as a source of energy to propel spacecraft deeper into space in the coming decades.

Nuclear propulsion – first proposed and attempted in the 1950s – would involve harnessing the energy released in the splitting of heavy atomic nuclei to accelerate propellants such as hydrogen in order to drive the spacecraft onwards. An engine based on nuclear power could be twice as efficient as conventional chemical engines which power today’s spacecraft.

A spacecraft could conceivably complete a trip to Mars in just three to four months using nuclear propulsion, making crewed missions to the Red Planet more feasible. In addition to saving time, this would cut the dose of radiation astronauts are exposed to during the trip

Using a small nuclear generator on a spacecraft could also prove more reliable in deep space exploration, where sunlight is too dim to rely on solar panels.

“As we build back better from the pandemic, it is partnerships like this between business, industry and government that will help create jobs and bring forward pioneering innovations that will advance UK spaceflight,” said Amanda Solloway, the science minister.

“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.”

Dr Graham Turnock, head of UKSA, commented: “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 of Rolls-Royce Defence, added: “We are excited to be working with [UKSA] on this pioneering project to define future nuclear power technologies for space. 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.”

“We look forward to developing this and other exciting space projects in the future as we continue to develop the power to protect our planet, secure our world, and explore our universe.”

The government hopes that this project could create new skilled jobs across the UK. The government is hopeful that an innovative space economy could blossom in the UK, throwing support behind Nasa’s ambitious Artemis program, purchasing a large share of the bankrupt satellite company OneWeb, and with plans in the pipeline to build a spaceport in Scotland.

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