Rolls-Royce unveils a concept nuclear reactor that could one day power a colony on the moon

  • Rolls-Royce unveiled a concept model for a miniature nuclear reactor that could go to the moon.

  • The reactor could one day power a colony of lunar astronauts.

  • The company aims to have a reactor ready by the early 2030s.

Rolls-Royce has revealed a concept model of a micronuclear reactor it plans to bring to the moon.

The project, backed by a £2.9 million contract ($3.6 million) from the UK Space Agency, aims to provide a reliable power source for astronauts establishing colonies on the moon in the near future.

"Our Space Micro-Reactor Concept Model allows us to demonstrate how this technology will bring immense benefits for both space and Earth," Abi Clayton, director of future programs at Rolls-Royce, said in a statement Friday.

The model was unveiled at the UK Space Conference in Belfast, UK late November.

Rolls-Royce believes it will take another six years for the reactor to be ready to be sent to the moon.

"Rolls-Royce plan to have a reactor ready to send to the moon by the early 2030s," the firm said in the statement.

Micronuclear reactors could bring much-needed energy sources for long-term settlement on the moon. These scaled power stations are much smaller than the nuclear reactors that generate electricity for the power grids, generating less than 50 megawatts of electric power (compared to about 1 gigawatt per full-scale plant).

Though designs vary, microreactors follow much the same principles as their full-scale counterparts: nuclear fuel decay releases radiation which creates heat that powers a turbine or pistons or other heat-generated systems to produce electricity.

Many space agencies aim to return to the moon within the next decade — with NASA planning to put boots on the moon as early as 2024.

The longer-term plan is to establish lunar colonies that could allow astronauts to live on the moon for longer.

Colonizing the moon means bringing the infrastructure for day-to-day life. That includes a reliable source of energy for activities like drilling, heating, refrigeration, charging rovers, and more, Business Insider previously reported.

While it's possible to harness solar energy on the moon, it can be unreliable. Dust can occlude the solar panels, for instance, and it can't be used to power up systems in shady areas. A small nuclear reactor, on the other hand, can produce reliable, constant energy.

An artist's illustration shows a micro nuclear reactor, branded with the Rolls-Royce logo, on the moon, with the Earth shown in the background
An artist's illustration show a concept design for Rolls-Royce's micro nuclear reactor on the moon.Rolls-Royce

Rolls Royce isn't the only company looking to develop a miniature reactor for a space agency.

In 2022, NASA awarded contracts to Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse, and IX (a joint venture of Intuitive Machines and X-Energy) to develop preliminary designs for a 40-kilowatt class nuclear fission power system that could last at least 10 years in the lunar environment. Each contract was valued at about $5 million.

NASA previously developed its own concept nuclear reactor called Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (or KRUSTy).

Tested in 2018, KRUSTy was able to run for several hours, producing upwards of 4 kW at a temperature of 800 °C, proving a small-scale nuclear fission power system could produce enough energy to sustain a small colony on the moon.

The concept was designed to be safely flown on a rocket to the moon and abandoned once it ran out of fuel, which meant there was no need for a disposal plan for the waste — it could stay in the reactor and become steadily less radioactive.

After KRUSTy's concept proved the model could function, NASA reached out to private firms to develop their own designs in house.

Like many technologies being developed to improve infrastructure around the moon, the ultimate end goal is much further afield.

"This could be also a stepping stone to develop the technology and the experience that we could then take to Mars," Todd Tofil, the Fission Surface Power project manager at NASA's Glenn Research Center, told BI in 2022.

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