Future astronauts living and working on the moon need robust technologies that store and deliver continuous, reliable energy.
But with no wind, no combustible fuel, no water (as far as we know), and two weeks of darkness at a time — the moon isn’t exactly the best place to set up a solar or wind farm.
British aerospace company Rolls-Royce thinks it has a solution to this conundrum: nuclear microreactors.
The UK Space Agency (UKSA) seems to agree. It last week announced £2.9million funding for Rolls-Royce’s lunar microreactor project. This follows a £249,000 study funded by the agency last year.
With the fresh funds, the company hopes to deliver a modular microreactor demonstration model to the moon by 2029.
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“All space missions depend on a source of energy to support systems for communications, life support and scientific experimentation,” he said UK Space Agency in a press release on Friday.
“Solar power seems like an obvious choice, but the moon’s rotation results in a two-week day followed by a fortnight of darkness or night,” said Dhara Patel, space expert at the National Space Center in Leicester, England CNBC.
A nuclear reactor, on the other hand, could “enable continuous power supply regardless of location, available sunlight and other environmental conditions,” the UKSA said. This could “dramatically extend” the duration of future lunar missions and their scientific value, and provide a source of always-available, clean power, she added.
Rolls-Royce scientists and engineers will be working with a number of organizations to deliver the demonstrator, including the University of Oxford, the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Center (AMRC) and Nuclear AMRC.
The project is part of Rolls-Royce’s £500million Small Modular Reactor (SMR). programwhich received £210m in government support last year and aims to build, scale and roll out the technology across the UK and beyond.
These reactors would be compact, modular, and factory-made, and would produce far less energy than typical nuclear power plants, but at a fraction of the cost, proponents say.
“Space exploration is the ultimate laboratory for technologies we need on Earth.
Rolls-Royce expects to complete its first ground-based unit in the early 2030s and build up to ten by 2035, with four potential UK sites already envisaged. Each reactor is ready for operation once is expected to generate more than 400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power at least 400,000 homes.
However, we are still a long way from being ready for the market. SMRs are not cheap to build, and licensed SMR manufacturers are with rising material and energy prices battle keep their projects on budget. Earlier this month, Rolls-Royce said its current program funding will expire by the end of 2024 and called for negotiations with the UK government to find new investment, Reuters reported.
The company was thrown a lifeline last week when UK Treasury Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced the launch of a competition to boost investment in SMRs and funding should the technology prove viable.
While the details of the competition are yet to be announced, they are Thought that about six companies or consortia will submit bids. The race will likely pit Rolls-Royce, currently the number one in the UK, against rivals like the London-based startup Newcleowhich recently announced plans to raise €1 billion for the deployment of SMRs across the UK, and TerraPoweran American startup backed by Bill Gates Development of a class of “travelling wave reactors”.
While the competition is a step in the right direction, it’s still a long way from the hard money Rolls-Royce needs to meet its goals. But perhaps the moon will prove an ideal proving ground for scaling microreactors closer to home and the support of the UKSA, a springboard for the technology to mature.
As George Freeman, Minister of State at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology points out: “Space exploration is the ultimate laboratory for so many of the transformative technologies we need on Earth.”
The UKSA recently gave British companies £51m to develop communications and navigation services for missions to the moon, enabling future astronauts and equipment to communicate, share big data and safely navigate the lunar surface. All of these technologies require a source of energy, and nuclear energy could be the key.