NASA has initiated a study into the use of nuclear power in the space program. Planning is underway for the next phase of space exploration and current propulsion methods are reaching the bounds of their capabilities due to President Bush’s ‘Vision of Space Exploration’.
Power consumption is one of the major constraints for current space missions, for example the Spirit and Opportunity rovers currently operating on Mars have a maximum of 140 watts of power available to them. NASA estimates that a nuclear reactor would be able to supply in the order of thousands of kilowatts thus revolutionising the capabilities of future missions, allowing more sophisticated scientific instruments to be included and high data rate transmission back to Earth. The available energy could also be harnessed for propulsion, opening a range of possibilities for missions lasting for several years and visiting multiple planets.
The study has been undertaken in conjunction with the Department of Energy (DOE), the body responsible for regulating and researching both civilian and military nuclear capabilities in the USA.
However, the use of nuclear power in space raises environmental questions. Some early feasibility and conceptual studies identified a potential need for new facilities such as a land-based prototype reactor to test the reactor design before actual use, and launch site support facilities for final assembly and testing of the spacecraft before launch. Such questions would not be done before considering the environmental impacts including preparation of the appropriate site-specific National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 documentation.