The UK Space Agency and Rolls-Royce have kicked off a study into nuclear-powered space exploration.
Before anyone gets too excited, this is with a view to create a roadmap looking out to the next five to 10 years.
The study will see planetary scientists pondering the impact that might be had by nuclear power sources as well channelling the energy released by splitting the atom to accelerate propellants to huge speeds, potentially cutting the lengthy journey times associated with space travel.
The former has already seen applications in space probes operating at distances or performing activities where solar power simply won't cut the mustard. The latter is something else entirely and casts one's mind back to the grand plans of the 1950s and 1960s and the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program commissioned by NASA and the former US Atomic Energy Commission in 1961.
The then NASA Marshall Space Flight Center director Wernher von Braun reckoned that three NERVA engines could see action in propelling a crewed rocket to Mars in 1981 for a 1982 landing. The plan was presented in 1969. NASA's nuclear propulsion work was axed in 1972.
Come 2021, and the UK Space Agency has suggested that "Spacecraft powered by this kind of engine could, conceivably, make it to Mars in just 3 to 4 months – roughly half the time of the fastest possible trip in a spacecraft using the current chemical propulsion."
Rolls-Royce has form when it comes to nuclear power applications. A spokesperson told The Register: "Rolls-Royce is investigating the full landscape of nuclear power options to support the exciting and emerging requirement for increased power in the space domain," before boasting it would be "drawing on our world leading nuclear engineering pedigree developed over the past 60 years supporting the Royal Navy and civilian power applications."
Launching materials for nuclear fission into space presents its own issues, and while Rolls-Royce welcomed the ever-increasing number of options for actually getting the stuff into orbit, the spokesperson cited the company's experience with the UK's submarine fleet and told us: "Rolls-Royce will design all power products to the strictest safety standards.
"The nuclear space systems shall take advantage of the latest developments in safe fuel technology to ensure that these systems are safe to launch and through their continued operation."
The spokesperson also told us: "The design and regulation of nuclear power for space will ensure no increase in risk to the crew or public through the use of nuclear power options."
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Cutting the amount of time astronauts actually need to spend in deep space will also carry its own benefits.
"This study," said the spokesperson, "is aimed at electrical power generation in space which can be utilised for any number of potential applications including propulsion."
Using electricity to run thrusters is not a new idea. Hall-effect thrusters have seen action on satellites including those in SpaceX's Starlink constellation, where krypton-fuelled versions are used for manoeuvring.
We spoke to Richard Dinan of UK-based Pulsar Fusion last year, after the company had demonstrated a homegrown thruster built on the back of experience with fusion technology. As for today's study, Dinan noted that "fusion is the preferred route in every scenario," before adding "in terms of "what can be achieved right now... fission reactors are probably very exciting in the short term."
However, should fusion developments in the coming years prove as successful as expected, then fission might well have some competition in the powering of space missions. ®