UK Space Agency and Rolls-Royce Defence join to study nuclear power for space exploration

A new research contract has been formed between the UK Space Agency and Rolls-Royce Defence that will have planetary scientists working together to explore nuclear power's potential as a plentiful source of energy to make deep space exploration possible in the decades to come. One area of research will be nuclear propulsion that would involve channeling energy released by splitting atoms to accelerate propellants, like hydrogen, at high speeds.

Scientists believe nuclear propulsion has the potential to revolutionize space travel. Some estimates believe a nuclear propulsion engine could be twice as efficient as chemical engines used by rockets today. Some researchers believe spacecraft utilizing this type of engine could travel to Mars in 3 to 4 months, roughly twice as fast as possible with modern rockets. Researchers also believe that nuclear space power could create new skilled jobs across the UK.

UK science minister Amanda Solloway believes nuclear power presents transformative possibilities for space exploration. She says that the study with Rolls-Royce could help send the next generation of astronauts into space for faster and longer missions. Dr. Graham Turnock, CEO of the UK Space Agency, says space nuclear power propulsion is a game-changer concept with the potential to unlock future deep space missions to Mars and beyond.

This propulsion technology is important as not only would it mean saving time on deep space missions; it would also drastically reduce the amount of radiation astronauts are exposed to. Exposure to radiation in deep space is a significant concern for astronauts. The new propulsion system is also very important for exploring the outer solar system where sunlight can get too dim for solar panel efficiency.

Fuel cells are often unreliable and aren't an ideal choice for energy. The US considered nuclear propulsion back in the 1950s when they worked to develop a rocket propelled by small atomic bombs ejected from the back of the rocket.