Rolls-Royce Unveils Nuclear Reactor That Could Power The Moon

For space agencies and the space industry, the priorities for the next two decades are clear. First, astronauts will be sent to the Moon for the first time since the Age of Apollo, followed by the establishment of infrastructure that will allow them to talk there for a long time. After that, the first crewed missions will be sent to Mars, with subsequent missions every 26 months, resulting in the establishment of habitats (perhaps even a base on Mars). infinity). To achieve these goals, space agencies are investigating the next generation of electrical, energy and life systems.

This includes solar-electric propulsion (SEP), where solar energy is used to power highly efficient Hall-Effect thrusters. Similarly, they focus on nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) and integrated nuclear devices, which allow short travel times and provide a stable supply of energy for the Lunar and Martian regions. Outside of NASA, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) has partnered with Rolls-Royce to develop nuclear reactors for space exploration. To a recent tweetThe International Automobile and Space Agency has released a rendering of what their micro-reactor will look like.

Thermoelectric generators have been part of long-term space exploration for decades. The first activities of their dependence include to Vikings 1 and 2 orbiters and landers that were the first to explore the surface of Mars. The Voyagers 1 and 2 probes, now in interstellar space, also relied on thermoelectric reactors that allowed them to remain operational for more than 45 years. In recent decades, many of the generators of radioisotope thermoelectric (MMRTG) have helped such activities New Horizons probe and Curiosity and Tolerance the abolitionists.

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Looking at the future of space and the research goals of NASA, ESA, China, and others, researchers consider nuclear technology that has been thoroughly tested since the early days of space – like the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) . Recent efforts have led to programs such as NASA’s Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling TechnologY (KRUTY) and the NASA/DARP effort to maintain a spacecraft that will rely on nuclear-thermal propulsion (NTP). Not to be outdone, UKSA (an integral part of ESA) has partnered with Britain’s leading aircraft designer.

The partnership was announced in December 2021, when Rolls-Royce said they had signed a contract with UKSA to study nuclear power options for future space missions. The resulting technology will provide propulsion and power systems for long-duration journeys far from Earth, where solar power is not always an option. This includes the South Pole-Aitken Basin, where NASA, ESA, China, and Russia all plan to build surface habitats in the coming years. In this region, one “night of the moon” lasts fourteen days, followed by another fourteen days of endless sun.

During a Martian year (which lasts about 687 Earth days), the distance between Mars and the Sun ranges from 1.38 to 1.66 times the distance between Earth and the Sun . As a result, Mars receives about half the energy that Earth does, and seasonal dust storms can lead to dense cloud cover that can cause damage to solar panels. day. Some examples include Opportunity rover, which remained active on Mars for 15 years until a global dust storm in 2018 ended the mission. Recently, the InSight The lander stopped operations due to dust on its solar panels.

Another issue with sending crews to Mars is the transit times involved. The current mission plan of NASA and the China National Space Agency (CNSA) is to launch missions every 26 months to track Mars and Earth at their closest points. ufi in their path (aka. Mars opposition). Using conventional technology, these missions would take (at least) six months to reach the Red Planet. During that time, the crew will be exposed to solar and cosmic radiation and live in microgravity.

According to the agreement, Rolls-Royce is developing a micro-reactor to help accelerate nuclear and surface power. The concept was unveiled in October 2021 at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) held in Dubai. As they explained in the press release, the system will be able to provide power in “watts to megawatts”, and the technology will have applications in the area and here at home. They also stated that they plan to have a prototype micro-reactor ready by 2029. Abi Clayton, Rolls-Royce’s Future Program Manager, said at the time:

“In addition to micro-reactor technology, we are also providing our nuclear expertise in the development of Radioisotope Power Systems, and the potential of space to convert ‘rotten heat’ into electrical energy through thermoelectric generators or moving parts. This is a very exciting time for the Future Programs team and the development of nuclear power across Rolls-Royce.”

The first mockup shown in the tweet is the same design as the mini-reactor presented at IAC 2021. However, this time, the company has given a few details about how it will work, writes, “The Rolls-Royce Micro-Reactor. is designed to use an environmentally safe high-energy fuel. Each piece of uranium is enclosed in a series of protective layers that act as a storage, which allows it to withstand extreme conditions.”

Other presentations, such as the many videos and artist impressions on the Rolls-Royce Space website, show the many applications and functions they hope this technology will have. These include reactors that would power settlements on the Moon and Mars (which include the acquisition and use of resources) and fast-moving nuclear spacecraft that would explore beyond to the Earth-Moon system and even beyond Mars. Other possible applications include hypersonic space planes, small satellites, and on-orbit assembly.

An artist’s view of the future of space exploration thanks to micro-reactor technology. Credit: Rolls-Royce Space

Although the details of the micro-reactor are still limited, it is clear that UKSA and Rolls-Royce are committed to being an active part of the future of space exploration and commercial space. Amanda Solloway MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Science, Research and Innovation said:

“As we recover from this pandemic, it is partnerships like this between business, industry and government that will help create jobs and deliver pioneering innovation that will drive UK aviation forward. Nuclear power is provide revolutionary opportunities for space exploration and the new research we are doing with Rolls-Royce on this could help propel our next generation of astronauts into space faster and longer, greatly increasing our knowledge of the universe.”

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