The UK Space Agency has signed a contract with Rolls-Royce to study how nuclear power could be used to revolutionise spaceflight.
According to Rolls-Royce, the new research contract will see the two organisations work together to explore the “game-changing potential of nuclear power.” Specifically, the teams will examine how this technology can be utilised for deep-space exploration applications.
“Space nuclear power and propulsion is a game-changing concept that could unlock future deep-space missions that take us to Mars and beyond,” said Dr Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency.
The idea of using nuclear power in space is not a new one. In the 1950s, the United States proposed utilising nuclear pulse propulsion which used small nuclear explosions detonated behind a spacecraft to propel it forwards.
A decade later, the United States began development of the NERVA nuclear rocket engine. The project was created in order to develop a nuclear-powered upper stage for NASA’s Saturn V rocket. Although the program met and exceeded all performance and reliability expectations, it was cancelled by the Nixon administration before ever making it to the launchpad.
In the 1970s, NASA’s Voyager probes were launched equipped with radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) to enable the spacecraft to explore the farthest reaches of our solar system and beyond. The RTGs aboard both spacecraft continue to power the probes as they become the first man-made objects to enter interstellar space.
In more recent applications, NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance Mars rovers both utilize small nuclear power generators to explore the surface of the Red Planet without having to rely on the sun. This is important as severe dust storms on the Martian surface can block out the sun for weeks or even months.