UK Space Agency funds Rolls-Royce to develop Moon base nuclear power

22 March 2023

Rolls-Royce has secured funding from UK Space Agency (UKSA) to support research into how nuclear power could be used to support a future Moon base for astronauts. The work is being undertaken under Rolls-Royce’s Micro-Reactor programme. UKSA believes nuclear power could dramatically increase the duration of future Lunar missions and their scientific value as space missions depend on a power source, to support communications, life-support systems and science experiments.

UKSA has announced £2.9m ($3.5m) in new funding for a project to deliver an initial demonstration of a UK lunar modular nuclear reactor following an earlier £249,000 study in 2022. Nuclear space power is anticipated to create new skilled jobs across the UK to support the growing UK space economy. Rolls-Royce plans to have a reactor ready to send to the Moon by 2029. A nuclear micro-reactor would be relatively small and lightweight compared with other power systems, a could enable continuous power regardless of location, available sunlight, and other environmental conditions.

Minister of State at the Department of Science, Innovation & Technology, George Freeman, said: “Space exploration is the ultimate laboratory for so many of the transformational technologies we need on Earth: from materials to robotics, nutrition, cleantech and much more. As we prepare to see humans return to the Moon for the first time in more than 50 years, we are backing exciting research like this lunar modular reactor with Rolls-Royce to pioneer new power sources for a lunar base.”

He added that partnerships between UK industry, UKSA and government are helping to create jobs across the £16bn Space Tech sector “and help ensure the UK continues to be a major force in frontier science”.

Rolls-Royce will be working with a number of collaborators including the University of Oxford, University of Bangor, University of Brighton, University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and Nuclear AMRC. Rolls-Royce will focus on three key features of the Micro-Reactor; the fuel used to generate heat, the method of heat transfer and technology to convert that heat into electricity.

Rolls-Royce said the potential applications of Micro-Reactor technology are wide-ranging and could support commercial and defence use cases in addition to those in space. The aim is to create a world-leading power and propulsion capability for multiple markets and operator needs, alongside a clean, green and long-term power source.

Abi Clayton, Director of Future Programmes for Rolls-Royce said the new funding “will bring us further down the road in making the Micro-Reactor a reality, with the technology bringing immense benefits for both space and Earth. The 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.”

UKSA CEO Dr Paul Bate said: “We are backing technology and capabilities to support ambitious space exploration missions and boost sector growth across the UK. Developing space nuclear power offers a unique chance to support innovative technologies and grow our nuclear, science and space engineering skills base.

UKSA 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.

Image: Artist's impression of how a lunar micro-reactor might look (courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

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