British spacecraft could travel to Mars in half the time it now takes by using nuclear propulsion engines built by Rolls-Royce under a new deal with the UK Space Agency.
The aerospace company hopes nuclear-powered engines could help astronauts make it to Mars in three to four months, twice as fast as the most powerful chemical engines, and unlock deeper space exploration in the decades to come.
The partnership between Rolls-Royce and the UK Space Agency will bring together planetary scientists to explore how nuclear energy could be used to “revolutionise space travel”, according to the government.
Dr Graham Turnock, the chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said using nuclear power in space was “a gamechanging 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,” he said.
The government hopes nuclear technology could transform space travel by providing plentiful energy to power the spacecraft as they travel further from the sun and are unable to make use of solar energy.
Rolls-Royce has provided the nuclear propulsion technology used to power the Royal Navy’s submarine fleet for 60 years. The company hopes to build several small modular nuclear reactors on land too, to help meet the UK’s growing demand for electricity.
Dave Gordon, the head of Rolls-Royce’s defence division, said the UK’s “pioneering project” into nuclear space propulsion could make use of “a real niche UK capability” by building on Britain’s existing nuclear industry and supply chain.
Britain’s plan to build atomic spacecraft will not be the first. US scientists first tested nuclear spacecraft technology in the Nevada desert in the 1950s and 1960s before the programme was cancelled in 1971.
The US has undertaken several nuclear space programmes in recent decades. Late last year the US government issued a new space policy directive to advance Nasa’s nuclear developments.
Amanda Solloway, the UK’s science minister, said nuclear power “presents transformative possibilities for space exploration”, and could help to create jobs.
The 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”, she said.