The UK Space Agency said it had signed a research contract with Rolls Royce to study nuclear power as a more plentiful source of energy, capable of making possible deeper space exploration in the decades to come.
The announcement adds another front -- in addition to small modular reactors -- Britain is pursuing for long-term economic and status boosting growth. "Nuclear propulsion, which would involve channeling the immense energy released in splitting the atom to accelerate propellants, like hydrogen, at huge speeds, has the potential to revolutionize space travel," the agency said. Specifically, the agency said the more powerful propulsion system could cut the time down for deep space travel by 50 percent. A trip to Mars might take only 3-4 months, the agency estimates. That's about half of the time it would take under standard chemical propulsion.
The agency expects nuclear space power will create new skilled jobs across the UK to support the burgeoning UK space economy.
"As we build back better from the pandemic, it is partnerships like this between business, industry and government that will help to create jobs and bring forward pioneering innovations that will advance UK spaceflight," said Science Minister Amanda Solloway, who added, "nuclear power presents transformative possibilities for space exploration."
Dr Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, called the possibilities "a game-changer concept."
Besides cutting down on travel time, nuclear propulsion in space would drastically reduce the dose of radiation taken on by astronauts that would be making future trips to Mars or other planets. The size of the dose increases the longer you spend in deep space, away from the bubble of protection given by the Earth’s magnetosphere.
And what if Mars were only a rest stop? "The appeal of a small nuclear power generator for propulsion also comes from the fact that power in space becomes increasingly precious with distance from the Sun. In the outer Solar System, sunlight gets too dim for solar panels, and other technologies like fuel cells are often too patchy as a source of energy," the agency said.
Nuclear propulsion is an idea that has existed since the 1950s, when the United States attempted to develop a rocket-propelled by small atomic bombs tossed out the back.
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