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Rolls-Royce gets funding to develop lunar nuclear reactor

Professional Engineering

Relatively small and lightweight compared to other power systems, a nuclear micro-reactor could provide continuous power to lunar bases (Credit: Rolls-Royce)
Relatively small and lightweight compared to other power systems, a nuclear micro-reactor could provide continuous power to lunar bases (Credit: Rolls-Royce)

Rolls-Royce has secured funding to develop a nuclear reactor that could one day support a Moon base for astronauts.

The UK Space Agency (UKSA) announced £2.9m in new funding for the project today (17 March), to deliver an initial demonstration of the reactor technology.

Scientists and engineers at Rolls-Royce are working on the Micro-Reactor programme to develop technology that will support life and work on the Moon, powering communications, life support and science experiments.

Relatively small and lightweight compared to other power systems, a nuclear micro-reactor could enable continuous power regardless of location, available sunlight, and other environmental conditions.

Rolls-Royce plan to have a reactor ready to send to the Moon by 2029. It will use the funding to strengthen its knowledge of the complex systems, with a focus on three key features: the fuel used to generate heat, the method of heat transfer and technology to convert that heat into electricity.

“Nuclear power has the potential to dramatically increase the duration of future lunar missions and their scientific value,” a Rolls-Royce announcement said.

The firm will work alongside collaborators including the University of Oxford, University of Bangor, University of Brighton, University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and the Nuclear AMRC.

The Micro-Reactor could also have commercial and defence applications on Earth, Rolls-Royce said. The company aims 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: “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 defence use cases alongside providing a solution to decarbonise industry and provide clean, safe and reliable energy.”

Nuclear space power could create new skilled jobs around the UK, supporting the burgeoning UK space economy. 

Dr Paul Bate, chief executive of the UKSA, 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.

“This 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.”

George Freeman, minister of state at the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, said: “Space exploration is the ultimate laboratory for so many of the transformational technologies we need on Earth – from materials to robotics, nutrition, clean tech 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. 

“Partnerships like this, between British industry, the UK Space Agency and government, are helping to create jobs across our £16bn space tech sector and help ensure the UK continues to be a major force in frontier science.”

The new funding follows a £249,000 study funded by the UKSA in 2022.

The partnership with Rolls-Royce comes after the space agency recently announced £51m of funding 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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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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