Rolls-Royce unveils model of space microreactor

7 December 2023

Rolls-Royce unveiled a nuclear Space Micro-Reactor Concept Model at the UK Space Conference in Belfast. It is part of the UK Space Agency backed research programme to deliver an initial demonstration of a UK lunar modular nuclear reactor. In March, Rolls-Royce secured funding of £2.9m ($3.65m) from the UK Space Agency to support research into how nuclear power could be used to support a future Moon base for astronauts.

Scientists and engineers at Rolls-Royce, alongside strategic partners, have been working on several work packages under the  programme, to increase knowledge of these complex systems. The work packages have specifically focused on three key features of the microreactor; the fuel used to generate heat, the method of heat transfer and technology to convert that heat into electricity. Rolls Royce said. Collaborators have included the University of Oxford, Bangor University, Loughborough University, University of Sheffield AMRC, The Welding Institute and the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC).

A microreactor is relatively small and lightweight compared to other power systems, and could enable continuous power regardless of location, available sunlight, and other environmental conditions. Rolls-Royce plans to have a reactor ready to send to the Moon by the early 2030s. A Microreactor could supply power for the habitation and exploration of a planetary surface, or power and propulsion for spacecraft. Continuous power and efficient propulsion can also provide satellites with more flexible movement to protect and defend key orbits.

Abi Clayton, Director of Future Programmes for Rolls-Royce said funding from the UK Space Agency “has enabled crucial research and development of technologies that bring us closer to making the Microreactor a reality”. Microreactor technology “will deliver the capability to support commercial and defence use cases alongside providing a solution to decarbonise industry and provide clean, safe and reliable energy”.

UK Space Agency CEO Dr Paul Bates said developing space nuclear power “offers a unique chance to support innovative technologies and grow our nuclear, science and space engineering skills base”. The innovative research by Rolls-Royce “could lay the groundwork for powering continuous human presence on the Moon, while enhancing the wider UK space sector, creating jobs and generating further investment”.

The partnership with Rolls-Royce comes after the UK Space Agency recently announced £51m of funding available for UK companies to develop communication and navigation services for missions to the Moon, as part of the European Space Agency’s Moonlight programme, which aims to launch a constellation of satellites into orbit around the Moon. This will allow future astronauts, rovers, science experiments and other equipment to communicate, share large amounts of data including high-definition video, and navigate safely across the lunar surface.

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