U.K. launches study into nuclear-powered space exploration

January 15, 2021, 6:58AMANS Nuclear Cafe

A new research contract between the U.K. Space Agency and Rolls-Royce will see planetary scientists working together to explore nuclear power as an energy source for deep space missions in the decades to come. The effort is similar to one that the United States is undertaking through NASA.

"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 Graham Turnock, chief executive of the U.K Space Agency, on January 12. "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."

What it means: By some estimates, propulsion from a nuclear engine could be twice as efficient as the chemical engines that power rockets today, according to the U.K.'s government website. A spacecraft powered by nuclear could, conceivably, make it to Mars in three to four months – roughly half the time of the fastest journey in a spacecraft using the current chemical propulsion.

Rolls-Royce comment: “We are excited to be working with the U.K. Space Agency on this pioneering project to define future nuclear power technologies for space," said Dave Gordon, U.K. senior vice president, Rolls-Royce Defense. "We believe there is a real niche U.K. capability in this area and this initiative can build on the strong U.K. nuclear network and supply chain."

The contract: The terms of the contract were not revealed.

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