ESA gears up to build nuclear-powered rockets for deep space exploration and moon settlements

The European Space Agency has announced that it will fund several scientific studies in order to test the use of nuclear propulsion for future exploratory missions.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Illustration of nuclear-powered propulsion.
Illustration of nuclear-powered propulsion.


With the advancement of technology, humanity is ushering in a new era of space exploration. The goal of the 21st century is to reach and land on distant deep-space locations in our solar system.

Nuclear power rockets are a game-changing technology that can easily fly missions into deep space to the Moon and beyond. 

Recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that it will fund several scientific studies to test the use of nuclear propulsion for future exploratory missions. The funding initiative is part of the European Space Agency's Future Launchers Preparatory Program (FLIPP). 

Under this initiative, scientists and engineers will be given approximately 11 months to develop potential scientific studies involving nuclear rockets. According to the report, the study must also outline the benefits of using nuclear propulsion over traditional propulsion systems for future deep space missions.

In March 2023, the space agency approved some of these projects to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear rockets. One of them is led by OHB Czechspace project called RocketRoll, which stands for “pReliminary eurOpean reCKon on nuclEar elecTric pROpuLsion for space appLications.” 

“The aim of the study is to explore the possibilities of using nuclear fuel for demanding space logistics and exploration missions. The study shall provide an overview of existing European experience, technology, and industrial capabilities for the development of such vehicle, as well as a preliminary conceptual design of a nuclear electric propulsion engine,” said Jakub Sevecek, Head of Project Management at OHB Czechspace, in an official release. 

Why a nuclear rocket could fly you to the moon

Future demanding logistics missions would require the transportation of heavy cargo as well as the construction of infrastructure for human bases on the Moon or, later, Mars. That is why new technologies, such as nuclear-powered propulsion systems, may be advantageous over the existing ones. 

"Nuclear propulsion can be more efficient than the most efficient chemical propulsion or overcome solar-limited electric propulsion, enabling exploration of places no other technology can reach," said Jan Frýbort, principal nuclear technology investigator at Czech Technical University in Prague.

Spacecraft propulsion is now primarily a chemical-based propellant or electric with solar power. However, because these technologies are nearing their physical limits, they may not be suitable for deep space missions in the long run.

Another main advantage is the efficiency of the engines, compared to solar electric power or chemical ones. Nuclear power spacecraft are also said to offer higher speeds. 

Under this study, the OHB Czechspace team will create and present a conceptual design of a nuclear electric propulsion engine, including benefits, safety concerns, and other details. These results could serve as the foundation for future ESA programs aimed at using NEP spacecraft by 2035.

Meanwhile, NASA has also been working on nuclear rocket development. The space agency has teamed up with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create a nuclear thermal engine. The engine's demonstration is scheduled for 2027.