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
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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: Management Accountant - North West London, £35-40k

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant (ACCA / CIMA, ...

Recruitment Genius: Female Care Team

£11 - £12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A 10 year old girl who has profound an...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Manchester - Urgent Requirement!

£30000 - £35000 per annum + 20 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Development Manager ...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore