Rolls-Royce teases small nuclear reactor for spaceflight and moon bases

Perspective: Most people probably still only think of luxury cars when they think of Rolls-Royce. However, the company has begun to apply its many years of experience with nuclear propulsion to space exploration. Recently it became known about new details of these plans.

Rolls-Royce has tweeted a new image of its “microreactor” that can use nuclear power to power spacecraft and lunar objects. The post contained additional information about the operation of the reactor, mainly related to safety.

The microreactor will contain uranium particles at multiple levels so they can withstand the intense conditions that accompany space travel. For years, Rolls-Royce has spoken of the reactor as the center of its space ambitions.

Company started exploring nuclear energy for space exploration with the UK space agency in 2021. NASA recently confirmed that it is pursuing similar goals in collaboration with DARPA.

Previously, NASA has used nuclear power for unmanned space missions such as the Voyager probes, but not for crewed space travel. Nuclear fission could be a much more economical method of propulsion than the chemical rockets that currently send people into space. This will also result in shorter and more secure travel times. The US Department of Defense (DoD) began accepting proposals from private companies for spacecraft nuclear propulsion in 2021.

However, Rolls-Royce also wants to use nuclear reactors to power moon bases. One of the possible methods includes radioisotope devices using americium to power communications and scientific equipment. They will use the natural decay of nuclear material, which takes decades to deplete heat.

Last year, the Department of Defense and NASA gave Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse, X-Energy and Intuitive Machines millions of dollars to design nuclear power plants on the moon. Together they aim to build a 40 kilowatt nuclear reactor that can operate on the surface of the moon for ten years. In addition, Rolls-Royce believes that the development of nuclear reactors for space could contribute to the decarbonization of the Earth. This technology can find applications in land-based areas such as defense and shipping.

All British and American organizations see nuclear propulsion and lunar reactors as stepping stones to reach and explore Mars. NASA wants to prototype its system in 2027, while Rolls-Royce wants to produce its microreactor by 2028 and launch it in 2030.

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