Of all the new things the UK could do in space after the too numerous to mention reviews that have come and gone in the last few years nuclear power was way, way out there for anyone trying to hazard a guess at what a national agenda of ambition might be
In some respects the location of the new European Space Agency facility at the Harwell Science Centre in Oxfordshire should have been a big clue. The centre is also a location for the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority, aka UKAEA, and Harwell has been involved in nuclear research since 1945
The British National Space Centre’s space science director David Parker told Hyperbola that a demonstration of European radioisotope power source technology could take place after the 2011 meeting of ESA’s member states. Work on radioisotope power sources is already underway at ESA through two programmes, general technology research and Mars exploration, that have a financial investment of about €8 million ($10.8 million) until 2011Parker also talked about studying alternatives to the much used Plutonium-238 isotope that has powered US missions in the past. In its 2010 budget NASA got funds for re-establishing plutonium isotope production because the agency’s supplies of it, Pu-238, are running out
The alternative in Europe’s sights is Americium but it is just as likely that ESA will simply buy (or have barter arrangements for) NASA Pu-238 and use that. Certainly the two agencies’ plans for Mars are to work together so why even duplicate?
However ESA will probably get its own production facility because radioisotope power sources have been identified as a technology the European agency wants to be independent in
But while European science and exploration mission managers may be rubbing their hands at the prospect of a powerful new novel energy source powering their space probes in the decades to come, the BNSC and its Harwell partners may just be focused on the nearer term public relations issues of explaining how you launch plutonium safely. Irresponsible scare mongering tabloid journalism anyone?