British spacecraft could travel to Mars in half the time now needed, using nuclear-powered engines built by Rolls-Royce under a new deal with the UK Space Agency.
The aerospace company hopes that nuclear-powered engines can help astronauts reach Mars in three to four months, twice as fast as the most powerful chemical engines, and unlock deeper space exploration in the coming decades.
The partnership between Rolls-Royce and the UK Space Agency will bring together planetary scientists to study how nuclear energy can be used for a “space travel revolution”
Dr Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said the use of nuclear energy in space was “a game-changing concept that could unlock future deep space missions that will take us to Mars and outside it. “
“This study will help us understand the exciting potential of nuclear-powered spacecraft and whether this nascent technology can help us travel farther and faster through space than ever before,” he said.
The government hopes that nuclear technology can transform space travel by providing abundant energy to power the spacecraft, as they travel farther from the sun and are unable to use solar energy.
Rolls-Royce has been providing nuclear propulsion technology used to power the Royal Navy’s submarine fleet for 60 years. The company also hopes to build several small modular onshore nuclear reactors to meet the growing demand for electricity in the UK.
Dave Gordon, head of Rolls-Royce’s defense division, said the UK’s “pioneering project” in the field of nuclear propulsion could take advantage of “the UK’s real capability” by building on the existing British nuclear industry and supply chain.
Britain’s plan to build nuclear spacecraft will not be the first. U.S. scientists first tested nuclear spacecraft technology in the Nevada desert in the 1950s and 1960s, before the program was canceled in 1971.
The United States has undertaken several nuclear space programs in recent decades. Late last year, the US government issued a new space policy directive to advance NASA’s nuclear development.
Amanda Soloway, the UK’s science minister, said nuclear power “offers transformational opportunities for space exploration” and could help create jobs.
The Rolls-Royce study could help “drive the next generation of astronauts into space faster and longer, significantly increasing our knowledge of the universe,” she said.