Astronauts could travel in space using nuclear power. This is a track that is seriously studied by the United States and now the United Kingdom is also interested in the question. On Tuesday, January 12, the British space agency announced the signing of a research contract with Rolls-Royce to study propulsion systems powered by the fission of atoms.
Rolls-Royce is developing in nuclear power
In the midst of a crisis in the aeronautics sector, Rolls-Royce seems to want to develop its skills in the nuclear industry. The British engine manufacturer has already been supplying reactors for military submarines since 1963. Based on this long experience, the company presented in November 2020 a vast program in the emerging sector of small modular reactors (or SMR) for the sector. Energy. Now, she imagines applications for space.
For now, these are only studies. Rolls-Royce still speaks of an “exciting opportunity to define and shape the nuclear energy solutions required in space in the decades to come.”
“Unlock future deep space missions”
The interest of this technology lies in three promises: to travel faster, further and longer in space. A subject at the center of concerns as the protagonists of the sector wish to lead manned expeditions to the Moon and Mars. “Nuclear in space for energy and nuclear propulsion is a revolutionary concept that could unlock future missions in deep space that would lead us to Mars and beyond”, defends in a statement the boss of the British Space Agency, Graham Turnock.
(The limited energy and fuel resources represent a big constraint for manned missions. Credit: Rolls-Royce)
Today, the majority of missions are launched using chemical jet engines. A more difficult solution to use for long expeditions given the mass of fuel required. Space probes can also use solar panels but this excludes environments where light is lacking. The American rover Perseverance on its way to Mars will also use a nuclear electric generator to be able to remain active as long as possible.
Halve the travel time to Mars
Another advantage of nuclear power in the perspective of long manned journeys: it could reduce the exposure of astronauts to space radiation. According to the British Space Agency, a nuclear-powered spacecraft could reach the Red Planet in three to four months compared to six to eight months with chemical jet engines.
(A concept of a nuclear powered NASA spacecraft, shown in CGI. Credit: NASA)
Beyond propulsion systems, nuclear power could also supply possible energy-intensive space bases. In December 2020, NASA also indicated that it wanted to install a power system on the Moon that would work thanks to nuclear fission. The US Space Agency hopes to deploy this technology at the end of the 2020 decade to test its potential for Martian exploration.
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