The European Space Agency (ESA) is investing in research studies to explore the potential of nuclear propulsion for deep space exploration. This new technology could revolutionize space missions by allowing humanity to reach further into space than ever before.
The studies will be conducted as part of the ESA Future Launchers Preparatory Program (FLIPP) and will focus on developing feasibility studies to determine the advantages of using nuclear-based electric propulsion (NEP) over classical propulsion systems for demanding missions.
The studies will be led by scientists from the University of Prague, the University of Stuttgart, and engineers from OHB Czechspace and OHB System in Bremen. The program, called “RocketRoll,” aims to provide an overview of existing European experience, technology, and industrial capabilities for the development of a nuclear-propelled spacecraft. It will also provide a conceptual design of a nuclear electric propulsion engine, taking into consideration safety constraints from the early stages of the design.
“Nuclear propulsion can be more efficient than the most efficient chemical propulsion or overcome solar-limited electric propulsion, enabling exploration of places no other technology can reach. This is a big challenge for future space missions beyond our solar system, for example,” Jan Frýbort, principal nuclear technology investigator at Czech Technical University in Prague, explained.
According to OHB Czechspace, the main advantage of NEP is the efficiency of the engines over chemical reactions and the larger power output, and the independence of exposure to direct sunlight over solar electric power input. This makes NEP a more suitable technology for transporting heavy cargo with long time constraints and for exploration beyond Mars orbit.
The results of RocketRoll, which will be delivered next year, could form the basis of other ESA programs to explore the feasibility of NEP spacecraft that could be operational by 2035.
NASA is also exploring using nuclear rockets through a program in partnership with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). They aim to develop a nuclear thermal engine and fly in an in-space demonstration as early as 2027.
As humanity works towards more sustainable space missions and establishing habitats and bases on the moon and beyond, new methods of power and propulsion become crucial.
NEP technology could enable us to go beyond the limits of current propulsion systems and explore places no other technology can reach.