Rolls-Royce presents the design of a space nuclear reactor

Rolls-Royce is demonstrating a future version of a new generation compact nuclear space reactor, being developed since 2021 jointly with the UK Space Agency. The venerable company is trying to become part of the ambitious future of space flight. The Rolls-Royce project is at an early stage, so the final look of the reactor may be different.

Visualization of the proposed Rolls-Royce space micronuclear energy system. Image: Rolls-Royce

The reactor uses nuclear fission, during which a lot of energy is released, used to power astronaut bases on the Moon or Mars. Also, such nuclear power plants would be able to power huge spacecraft during months of travel on the Red Planet.

“Each uranium particle is encapsulated in multiple protective layers that act as a containment system, allowing it to withstand extreme conditions.,” Rolls-Royce explains in a brief description on Twitter.

Peaceful atom in space

Nuclear systems have long been used in robotic space missions. For example, radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) power many spacecraft, including NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft, which are currently exploring interstellar space. The Perseverance and Curiosity rovers also use RTGs, but the smaller Spirit and Opportunity rovers are equipped with solar panels.

RTGs are not really fission reactors. Rather, these are nuclear batteries that generate electricity by the heat released as a result of the decay of radioactive material. Nuclear fission is not used in spacecraft yet, although this may change soon. For example, NASA and DARPA recently announced plans to create a nuclear thermal rocket by 2027.

But with the “peaceful atom” it is necessary to be extremely careful not to endanger the crew of space missions. Therefore, Rolls-Royce faces the difficult task of building a compact and powerful nuclear reactor that would be safe and work for decades in extreme conditions.

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