The UK Space Agency has announced it will fund research by Rolls-Royce into how nuclear power could be used to support a future Moon colony.
Rolls-Royce’s Micro-Reactor programme aims to develop technology that will provide the energy needed for humans to live and work on the Moon.
The project will receive £2.9m of new funding from the UK Space Agency, following £249,000 provided for an initial study in 2022, and will aim to develop a lunar nuclear reaction by 2029.
Nuclear power has the potential to dramatically increase the duration of future Lunar missions and their scientific value, as it can provide the energy necessary to support systems for communications, life-support and science experiments.
However, power sources have been particularly difficult to transport to outer space. For this reason, Rolls-Royce’s vision of a relatively small and lightweight nuclear microreactor could be the key to enabling continuous power regardless of location, available sunlight and other environmental conditions.
Nuclear space power is anticipated to create new skilled jobs across the UK to support the burgeoning UK space economy, which is said to be worth £16bn.
The funding will allow scientists to 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.
“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,” said George Freeman, minister of state at the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology.
“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.”
Rolls-Royce will be working alongside a variety of collaborators including the University of Oxford, the University of Bangor, the University of Brighton, the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and Nuclear AMRC.
“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,” said Abi Clayton, director of future programmes for Rolls-Royce. “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.”
Dr Paul Bate, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, added: “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.”
The partnership with Rolls-Royce comes after the UK Space Agency recently announced £51m of funding available for UK companies to develop communication and navigation services for missions to the Moon.
Earlier this week, Nasa unveiled the new spacesuit designs which will be worn by astronauts travelling to the Moon as part of the Artemis programme that aims to take humans back to the Moon.
The UK is part of the Artemis programme, making contributions to the Lunar Gateway – a space station currently in development with the European Space Agency – working alongside the US, Europe, Canada and Japan. The nations have together developed the Artemis Accords, a set of principles to ensure a shared understanding of safe operations, use of space resources, minimising space debris and sharing scientific data.
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