Nasa gives go-ahead for nuclear mission to outer planets

An ambitious and controversial mission to explore the other planets of the solar system using nuclear-powered spacecraft has come a step closer after Nasa gave a giant aerospace company the go-ahead to develop revolutionary new engines.

An ambitious and controversial mission to explore the other planets of the solar system using nuclear-powered spacecraft has come a step closer after Nasa gave a giant aerospace company the go-ahead to develop revolutionary new engines.

The aim is to build an interplanetary space probe powerful enough to fly vast distances and still to have enough power to collect scientific information and send it back to Earth.

Nasa, the US's National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is giving $6m (£4.3m) to the American company Lockheed Martin to investigate the concepts needed to build such a deep-space explorer powered by a miniature nuclear reactor.

Project Prometheus, named after the Greek god who gave fire to humanity, will concentrate on nuclear propulsion because it is considered the only form of power that can meet the mission's requirements.

But critics will question the safety of launching potentially dangerous nuclear material into space, especially after the technical failures that led to shuttle crash earlier this year.

Nasa said an immediate goal of Prometheus was to provide the propulsion to send a spacecraft to the planet-sized moons of Jupiter - Callisto, Ganymede and Europa - which may harbour life beneath their icy surfaces.

Solar-powered instruments would be of little help in analysing the moons and planets of the outer solar system, where the sunlight is weak and ineffectual. Nasa has decided, therefore, that only a nuclear-fission reactor would provide sufficient electricity to probe these worlds.

Existing space probes have reached as far as Jupiter and beyond but they have had to operate on the power equivalent to a few electric lightbulbs, which has severely limited what they could do, where they could go and what they could transmit back to Earth.

A nuclear-powered spacecraft could not only operate powerful radars and other remote-sensing instruments but use its engines to travel more freely instead of relying on the gravitational "sling-shot" technique that limits the trajectory of existing probes.

"Project Prometheus will develop the means to efficiently increase power for spacecraft, thereby fundamentally increasing our capability for Solar System exploration," Nasa said. "Increased power for spacecraft means not only travelling farther or faster, but is also means exploring more efficiently with enormously greater scientific return."

The first candidate for nuclear propulsion, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter ( Jimo), is unlikely to be launched before 2011 because of the time needed to build the spacecraft. However, as a fleet of space probes heads for Mars over the coming two years, the next target is likely to be Europa and its vast ice-covered ocean, confirmed by the space probe Galileo. Last year, the US National Research Council ranked a Europa orbiter as top priority for a "flagship" mission because of the possibility it might harbour life.

Nasa scientists calculate that a nuclear-fission reactor on the Jimo spacecraft would give it a hundred times more power than a comparable space probe powered by solar panels. A reactor for a spacecraft would have to be about 10,000 times smaller than typical scientific reactors used on the ground.

It would also have to incorporate safety enhancement. One feature is for the reactors to remain "cold" - not turned on - until they are well beyond Earth's orbit. Another is to ensure that once the mission is over the spacecraft is sent into a trajectory that takes it well away from Earth.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum