Rolls-Royce has signed a deal with the UK Space Agency which could see the engineering specialist provide nuclear powered engines for future missions to Mars.
Indeed, British spacecraft could travel to Mars in half the time it now takes by using the nuclear engines, it is claimed.
Rolls-Royce said it 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 will bring planetary scientists together to explore how nuclear energy could be used to “revolutionise space travel”, according to the government.
“We are excited to be working with the UK Space Agency on this pioneering project to define future nuclear power technologies for space,” said Dave Gordon, UK senior vice president, Rolls-Royce Defence.
“We believe there is a real niche UK capability in this area and this initiative can build on the strong UK nuclear network and supply chain.
“We look forward to developing this and other exciting space projects in the future as we continue to develop the power to protect our planet, secure our world and explore our universe”
The UK’s science minister Amanda Solloway added: “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.
“Nuclear power presents transformative possibilities for space exploration and this innovative 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.”
Dr Graham Turnock, the chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said using nuclear power in space was “a game-changing 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.
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 also undertaken several nuclear space programmes in recent decades, and in 2020 the US government issued a new space policy directive to advance Nasa’s nuclear developments.