Under a new deal with the British space agency, the British spacecraft could go to Mars in half the time using a nuclear propulsion engine built by Rolls-Royce.
The aerospace company hopes the nuclear-powered engine can help astronauts reach Mars in three to four months, twice as fast as the most powerful chemical engine and unlock space exploration in the coming decades.
The government says a partnership between Rolls-Royce and the UK Space Agency will bring together planetary scientists on how nuclear energy can be used to “revolutionize space travel”.
U.K. The use of nuclear power in space 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 space agency.
“This study will help us understand the amazing potential of a nuclear-powered spacecraft, and whether this latest technology can help us travel faster and more into space than ever before.”
The government hopes that nuclear technology can transform space travel by providing plenty of energy to power spacecraft as they travel beyond the sun and are unable to use solar energy.
Rolls-Royce has provided nuclear propulsion technology used to power the Royal Navy’s submarine fleet for over 60 years. To meet the UK’s expected growth in electricity demand, the company also hopes to build several small modular nuclear reactors on the ground.
Dave Gordon, head of defense at Rolls-Royce, said the UK’s “leading project” of nuclear space propulsion could use “real UK capacity” by building on Britain’s existing nuclear industry and supply chain.
Britain’s plans to build a 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 U.S. has conducted many nuclear space programs in recent decades. Last year, the US government outlined a new space policy to further NASA’s nuclear development.
The UK’s Minister for Science, Amanda Solove, said nuclear power “represents the potential for change in space exploration”, and could help create jobs.
He said the study with Rolls-Royce would “help astronauts accelerate our future pay into space faster and longer, significantly increasing our knowledge of the universe.”