Rolls-Royce teases small nuclear reactor for space travel and moon bases
Reactor would use shielded uranium and natural nuclear decayBy Daniel Sims 25 comments
Forward-looking: Most people probably still only picture luxury automobiles when they think of Rolls-Royce. However, the company has started applying its decades of experience with nuclear-powered engines to space exploration. Recently, it revealed new details on those plans.
Rolls-Royce tweeted a new image of its "Micro-Reactor" that could use nuclear energy to power spaceships and lunar facilities. The post contained further information on the reactor's workings, mainly regarding safety.
The Micro-Reactor will house uranium particles underneath multiple containment levels so they can withstand the intense conditions that accompany space travel. For years, Rolls-Royce has discussed the reactor as the center of its space-oriented ambitions.
The company started studying nuclear power for space exploration alongside the UK's space agency in 2021. NASA recently confirmed it has similar goals in cooperation with DARPA.
A Rolls-Royce Micro-Reactor is designed to use an inherently safe and extremely robust fuel form. Each uranium particle is encapsulated in multiple protective layers that act as a containment system, allowing it to withstand extreme conditions.https://t.co/OOc9kBGXDx pic.twitter.com/wkXmZgzhrs— Rolls-Royce (@RollsRoyce) January 27, 2023
NASA has previously used nuclear power for unmanned space missions like the Voyager probes but not for crewed space travel. Nuclear fission could be a much more fuel-efficient propulsion method than the chemical rockets currently sending people to space. It would also result in shorter and safer travel times. The US Department of Defense (DoD) started accepting proposals from private companies for nuclear propulsion systems for spacecraft in 2021.
However, Rolls-Royce also wants to use nuclear reactors to power moon bases. One possible method involves radioisotope devices that use Americium to power communications and scientific equipment. They would utilize the natural decay of nuclear material, which exhausts heat over decades.
The DoD and NASA awarded millions of dollars to Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse, X-Energy, and Intuitive Machines last year to design lunar-based nuclear power plants. Together, they aim to build a 40-kilowatt class fission reactor that can last for a decade on the moon's surface. Furthermore, Rolls-Royce thinks its development of nuclear reactors for space can help de-carbonization on Earth. The technology could have applications in Earth-based areas like defense and shipping.
The British and American organizations all view fission-powered propulsion and lunar reactors as stepping stones to reaching and exploring Mars. NASA wants to prototype its system in 2027, while Rolls-Royce wants to produce its Micro-Reactor by 2028 and launch it in 2030.