Micro-reactor could power missions on the moon and beyond
It’s one of those sentences you have to read a few times to fully process. “Rolls-Royce today announces it has secured funding from UK Space Agency, as it backs research by Rolls-Royce into how nuclear power could be used to support a future moon base for astronauts,” the company announced in March.
The first thing to know is that this Rolls-Royce is a completely separate entity from Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, the name synonymous with luxury automaking which has been owned by BMW since 2003. This Rolls-Royce focuses on civil aerospace, defense, and power systems and has been a nuclear energy pioneer for six decades.
The second is that the UK Space Agency announced £51 million ($63.4 million) in funding available for UK companies to develop communication and navigation services for moon missions as part of humanity’s return to the moon. Missions this decade will lay the groundwork for using the moon as a base to reach deeper space.
Now that we have our heads around that sentence, let’s dive deeper into what has the potential to be a very cool development.
Micro-Reactor on the Moon
Those missions will need a power source to support communications, astronaut accommodations, vehicles, and scientific experiments. Nuclear power could extend the length of those missions and increase their scientific value, says Rolls-Royce, which has set a goal of having a reactor ready to send to the moon by 2029. It has £2.9 million ($3.6 million) in funding from the UK Space Agency to work with.
“This 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 defense use cases alongside providing a solution to decarbonize industry and provide clean, safe, and reliable energy,” Abi Clayton, director of future programs at Rolls-Royce, said.
Nuclear micro-reactors are small enough to transport to space and can provide power when sunlight or other forms of energy aren’t available, such as missions to the dark side of the moon. On Earth as well, they can be a source of mobile, off-grid power that could fuel sustainability efforts. In particular, they could replace diesel generators in less-developed parts of the world that rely on remote and portable power sources.
“Nuclear energy is the most powerful source of ‘always on’ clean energy, however, it must be deliverable, scalable, and cost-competitive for it to be widely embraced,” Rolls-Royce says.
Developing a micro-reactor for lunar conditions will help perfect the model, and the publicity generated by such a high-profile mission won’t hurt, either.
Rolls-Royce is partnering with the universities of Oxford, Bangor, Brighton, and Sheffield as well as Nuclear AMRC on the project.
While humans last set foot on the moon in 1972, we’re about to go back again and again, with a space station set to orbit the moon this decade and Artemis III set to return astronauts to the moon in 2025, with annual returns slated for the end of the decade.
“This innovative research by Rolls-Royce could lay the groundwork for powering continuous human presence on the moon,” Dr. Paul Bate, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said.
The Artemis program’s long-term goals are establishing a permanent moon base that could facilitate human missions to Mars.
Micro-reactors could power such missions on the Martian surface, as well.
“Developing space nuclear power offers a unique chance to support innovative technologies and grow our nuclear, science, and space engineering skills base,” Bate said.
Portable, reliable nuclear energy could be crucial to successful excursions to deep space, where other sources fail.
“As we look to the future, the potential for nuclear energy to bolster plans for a long-term habitat on other planetary bodies is pretty extraordinary,” David Poston and Patrick McClure of SpaceNukes, working on their own Kilopower project, wrote on Space.com.
Powering missions to other worlds and making them cleaner and more efficient, now there’s a thought we’d love to get our heads around.