The Prime Minister vowed to defeat coronavirus and build a better country over the next decade in his leader’s speech to the virtual Conservative Party conference. Evoking the UK’s recovery from World War 2, he said he wanted to build a “new Jerusalem”, with opportunity for all, improved housing and healthcare. And as the path for Brexit Britain is still being forged, Chair of the Parliamentary Space Committee, David Morris MP, has handed the Government a proposal.
He believes the UK is currently missing a trick with space, highlighting just one of his ideas to stimulate the economy and place Britain as a global leader in the industry.
Arguing in favour of a new Government department devoted to space, he told Express.co.uk: “Space is now becoming the next utility.
“I honestly believe if I was a space minister I could double the industry in 12 months.
“It’s all about pulling people together and, at the moment, we’ve just not got the framework to do it.”
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have been handed a plan to boost the economy
The Prime Minister laid-out his plans for the future
The UK is no longer a part of the EU’s Galileo programme, despite providing the “brains and heart” of its main features.
But Mr Morris is optimistic, highlighting the expertise used to develop such technology can now be focused on British ventures.
He explained: “The last figures I saw showed 80 percent of the stuff that goes into orbit is built in the UK – we do it well, we do it frequently, and we do it on budget.
“The problem is we’ve not had our own spectrum to work on – meaning we gave it away to Europe.
“That was an argument that was valid then, but we’re in different times now.
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David Morris MP has a plan to create thousands of jobs
“I think that slowed us down quite considerably, we were dishing out the work across Europe, but still building all the components.
“We can increase on that, it’s not just components, we can put together the pieces to get launches into space.”=
The Morecambe and Lunesdale MP believes that a radioactive chemical currently stored in the UK could unlock Britain’s potential to be a global leader in space.
He said: “If you go to NASA, most of the investments are coming from our universities – the University of Leicester has got a fantastic facility there working on all kinds of stuff.
“Dr Richard Ambrosi has been working with a by-product for uranium called americium 241 – In very basic terms, it’s like having something that can boil a kettle for 100 years, a mini power plant.
“If this comes back into the atmosphere though, it is not toxic – it’s a by-product – it’s in fire sensors.
Some UK scientists are currently working at NASA
Dr Richard Ambrosi has been working with a by-product for uranium called americium 241
“We’ve got this stuff in abundance, my constituency is where the first nuclear power plant went up (in the UK).
“This stuff is stored in abundance and you can’t make a bomb out of it, you can’t do anything nasty with it – it’s still toxic if you hold it – but it won’t harm people for what we want to use it for.”
The European Space Agency (ESA) – which the UK will continue to be part of – has put out an international call asking for partners to develop technology for the next generation of space exploration.
The use of radioisotope power systems for space exploration is not new, however, these have traditionally relied on plutonium 238 as a fuel source.
It fuelled the first space batteries used in space, launched aboard the Navy TRANSIT 4A Navigational Satellite in 1961.
Since then, the fuel has been used in the majority of NASA mission including several Apollo flights, the Viking 1 and 2 Mars landers, Voyager 1 and 2 space probes and the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
The product could be used to launch into space in the future
But it requires a special reactor known as a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) and a complicated extraction process to produce, therefore making it expensive.
Historically, the European space programme has relied on the USA and Russian stockpiles meaning ESA was unable to develop and control its own space missions.
The UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) and the University of Leicester answered that call, proposing using nuclear fuel, through radioisotope power systems (RPSs) to power long term, long-distance missions.
The team extracted americium from some of the UK’s plutonium stocks and used the heat generated from this highly radioactive material to generate electric current, which in turn lit up a small light bulb.
Space batteries are power sources for space probes which would use the heat from americium pellets to power sensors and transmitters as the probes head into deep space where other power sources such as solar panels will no longer function.
Speaking in 2019, Professor Ambrosi said: “In order to push forward the boundaries of space exploration, innovations in power generation, robotics, autonomous vehicles and advanced instrumentation are needed.
Nuclear energy has been used in several NASA missions
“Radioisotope power sources are an important technology for future European space exploration missions as their use would result in more capable spacecraft, and probes that can access distant, cold, dark and inhospitable environments.
“This is an important step in achieving these goals.”
Americium 241 also has a half-life of around 430 years compared to around 90 years for Plutonium 238, making it more suitable for long-duration missions.
And, as there are over 100 tonnes of separated plutonium in the UK alone, it offers the potential to be a long-term, sustainable, export to Europe and the rest of the world.
Mr Morris claimed: “We could use this to carry future flights into space – that alone – if the UK got a license to send it to NASA – we could be making billions out of it.
“It needs someone to put it together, push it through Parliament and another industry is born.
A diagram showing Cosmos 954
“This is the perfect plan for Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson, americium is like a fine wine in a perverse way.
“Because we were the first in the world ever to make plutonium, this stuff starts to disintegrate and decays to a point where you can use it.
“You can’t use it as a freshly made product, it has to be 30 to 40 years old and we are the only country in the world that has this stuff, but we haven’t exported it.”
Americium 241 may decay slower than plutonium 238, potentially allowing for longer missions, but Professor Ralph McNutt of Johns Hopkins University has previously pointed out that it takes more of it to supply one unit of power, which could be a drawback for space missions, in which weight must be kept at a minimum.
He added: “When you’re trying to do interplanetary missions, really every kilogramme counts.”
There are also continued concerns over using nuclear energy in space.
The nuclear power systems used in spacecrafts have been involved in several launch failures and accidental reentries through the Earth’s atmosphere have also occurred.
Searching for debris of the spacecraft
A number of nuclear reactors hurled into Earth’s orbit by the former Soviet Union have encountered trouble, including in 1978, when Cosmos 954 failed to enter into a nuclear-safe storage orbit as planned.
Nuclear materials survived the fall through the atmosphere and spread over a wide area of Canada’s Northwest Territory.
A search and recovery effort coordinated by the Canadian government with US help was undertaken after this accident, since then no detectable contamination has been found in samples of air, water or food supplies.
And during Russia’s 1996 mission to Mars, the spacecraft failed to achieve full orbit, either crashing into ocean waters or, some still contend, dumping its plutonium canisters into South American mountains.
Meanwhile, up in Earth’s orbit, thousands of frozen bits of still-radioactive nuclear reactor coolant are resident in space.
They are leftover particles that dribbled out from a number of aged Russian radar satellites.
Some have argued against the use of nuclear energy
While americium in itself cannot be used to make nuclear weapons, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has concerns over the increased interest in using nuclear power for space exploration, adding that it opens the door to a silent arms race.
In a 2018 report, it warned: “Nuclear weapons and nuclear power share several common features.
“The long list of links includes their histories, similar technologies, skills, health and safety aspects, regulatory issues and radiological research and development.
“For example, the process of enriching uranium to make it into fuel for nuclear power stations is also used to make nuclear weapons.
“Plutonium is a by-product of the nuclear fuel cycle and is still used by some countries to make nuclear weapons.
“There is a danger that more nuclear power stations in the world could mean more nuclear weapons. Because countries like the UK are promoting the expansion of nuclear power, other countries are beginning to plan for their own nuclear power programmes too.
“But there is always the danger that countries acquiring nuclear power technology may subvert its use to develop a nuclear weapons programme.”
The UN has an Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) which implements decisions of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) set up in 1959 and now with 71 member states.
UNOOSA recognises “that for some missions in outer space nuclear power sources are particularly suited or even essential owing to their compactness, long life and other attributes”.
It adds: “The use of nuclear power sources in outer space should focus on those applications which take advantage of the particular properties of nuclear power sources.”
It has adopted a set of principles applicable “to nuclear power sources in outer space devoted to the generation of electric power on board space objects for non-propulsive purposes,” including both radioisotope systems and fission reactors.