Flights to distant areas of our Solar System, transportation of heavy cargos, human bases on the Moon or Mars. These and other future space missions could benefit from new propulsion system based on nuclear power. The possibilities of its use are now being investigated by the European Space Agency (ESA), which launched several feasibility studies in March. One of them is led by the Czech company OHB Czechspace and supported by scientists from the Czech Technical University in Prague, Institute of Space Systems (IRS) from the University of Stuttgart, and engineers from OHB System in Bremen specialized in propulsion systems. The Czech and German experts have eleven months to develop the study.
Nowadays, in-space propulsion is either chemical with storable propellant or electric with solar power. However, these technologies are approaching their physical limits, beyond which an increase of the performance is impossible. A new type of nuclear-based electric propulsion (NEP) should address passing these limits and enable the space logistics to be upgraded to a new league.
The upcoming study is a part of an ESA FLPP team (Future Launchers Preparatory Programme) project called RocketRoll (pReliminary eurOpean reCKon on nuclEar elecTric pROpuLsion for space appLications). The results will be known during the next year and will serve as a basis for further activities and ambitious ESA programmes.