Fission mission

A European mission to send astronauts to Mars would be based on spacecraft powered by nuclear reactors, according to researchers at Qinetiq.

Although the future holds little prospect of more funding for manned space flight, the European Space Agency wants to begin developing the necessary systems in readiness. It has awarded a contract to a consortium of companies including Qinetiq to study technologies for a journey to Mars and for use in its harsh environment, as part of its Aurora programme.

Reports from the US also claimed this week that NASA is considering a similar project that could be announced in President Bush’s State of the Union address on 28 January.

However, the agency is in the middle of an extensive review which is likely to result in extensive rationalisation of its budgets. As Jim Bilbro, the new chief technologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre says, it is value for money that now counts, not embarking on expensive prestige manned missions.

However, if the international community ever manage to put together an expedition to Mars, nuclear power will be the only option, according to Qinetiq.

The ESA’s Aurora programme was set up to examine future robotic and human exploration missions within the solar system. An electric propulsion system powered by a 1MW nuclear reactor would be needed to reach the planet, while around 100kW could power a station on its surface, said Hazel McAndrews, project manager and space scientist at Qinetiq.

While the researchers are also looking at non-nuclear technologies, such as solar panels and wind turbines, these would not be enough to send a spacecraft to Mars. Solar panels are affected by dust storms, which obscure sunlight, said McAndrews.

‘Both NASA and ESA are finding that nuclear is the only option to generate enough power to get to Mars. But we would never look at just one technology. In the end we would probably have a nuclear reactor with solar panels and wind turbines as back-up.’

The researchers are investigating new materials to make the reactor as light as possible, as well as attempting to reduce the cost of building the system. Most importantly the system must be extremely efficient and reliable, said McAndrews.

‘We are looking at how to distribute power to the area where it is needed and regulate it to make sure there are no power cuts, or the astronauts could be left without oxygen supplies.’

Any mission will also need a range of power sources once on the surface of the planet.

Electricity will be needed to allow the astronauts to carry out experiments, explore the surface in rovers and other mobile units, and to run the critically important life- support systems.

Nuclear reactors would not be suitable for powering the small rovers needed to travel around the planet, so the researchers are also looking into the use of fuel cells, said McAndrews.

The study is expected to last until the end of the year. But with new technologies being developed all the time, there are likely to be follow-up studies.

The research consortium also includes AEA Technology, Surrey Satellites Technology, Serco Assurance and French nuclear propulsion systems specialist Technicatome.

Sidebar: Travelling light

The Mars mission will be made possible by a module capable of producing oxygen and rocket propellant from resources available on the planet.

As part of the Aurora programme, Dr Adam Baker, senior propulsion engineer at Surrey Satellites Technology, is investigating the use of a special reactor to produce methane, an effective propellant, for use on the return journey.

The project, called In Situ Resource Utilisation, is looking into the use of Sabatier Reactors, which consist of a pipe containing a bed of catalysts. The pipe is heated, and carbon dioxide and hydrogen are passed through it to produce methane and water. The water can then be converted via electrolysis into oxygen for the astronauts’ life- support systems, and hydrogen, which can be fed back into the reactor.

Manufacturing fuel and oxygen on Mars would significantly reduce the mass of the spacecraft, cutting both the time and cost of the mission.

‘It is fairly simple technology but has obviously never been used on Mars before, so we have to make it sufficiently robust and reliable, initially for a robotic mission,’ said Baker.

The benefit of the Sabatier Reactor is that carbon dioxide is readily available on Mars, making up 95 per cent of the atmosphere, while hydrogen can be mined as ice from just below the planet’s surface, or transported onboard the spacecraft. Only half the amount of hydrogen needed for the process would have to be transported, as the other 50 per cent would be produced in the reaction itself.

Budget cuts within NASA and the transfer of US administration funding to the war on terror have led to doubts over the future of manned space flight. But there will always be some exploration work that robots cannot do, said Baker. ‘At the moment there isn’t the political will or the money [to send men into space]. But ESA has decided we need to build a long-term programme, so that when the decision is taken we will have the technology ready, and won’t then need to go through 10 years of development, by which time the political will may have dried up again.’