The university team has been working with collaborators including Astrium in the UK and Center for Space Nuclear Research in the US.
The focus in the UK has been the development of a 400kg Mars Hopper concept that can fly in 1km ’hops’.
It is claimed the Hopper can collect fuel between hops by compressing gas from the Martian atmosphere and can fly between sites, powered by a long-life radioisotope power source.
‘The Hopper is different from other rovers because of its power source,’ said Dr Nigel Bannister, a lecturer in detector physics at the Space Research Centre. ‘In one mode the heat source generates electric power to drive a compressor to gather the CO2 propellant from the Martian atmosphere. The heat source then stores thermal energy and injects it into the propellant, which is accelerated out of a rocket nozzle to provide thrust.’
Dr Hugo Williams, a research associate at Leicester, said: ‘At Leicester we have concentrated on the motor and design features that translate into the performance of the vehicle.
‘Our findings have resulted in a hop range of 1km, for a relatively large vehicle with a large suite of scientific instruments on board. We also looked at the geometry and the best materials for the motor core.
‘Our interest in the materials aspect is particularly relevant because we are also engaged in collaborative research with our colleagues in materials engineering here at Leicester and also with Queen Mary University of London to explore how the properties of materials for use in the space nuclear systems of the future can be enhanced through novel processing and manufacturing techniques.’
Their research findings have been published this month by the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.