Rolls-Royce Nuclear Engine Could Power Quick Trips to the Moon and Mars

Rolls-Royce Nuclear Engine Could Power Quick Trips to the Moon and Mars

Rolls-Royce Holdings is getting into the nuclear reactor business. The British aerospace engineering company says it’s developing a micro-nuclear reactor that the company hopes could be a source of fuel for long trips to the Moon and Mars.

As humanity begins to venture back into space, with crewed missions scheduled to visit the Moon and Mars within the next two decades, the technology that moves us throughout the solar system will be a pivotal part of that journey. Last week, Rolls-Royce teased the design of its Rolls-Royce micro-reactor for spaceflight with a digital mockup posted to Twitter last week:

As the company explained in a tweet, the reactor will rely on uranium, a common fuel used in nuclear fission. Nuclear fission involves bombarding an atom with a neutron. That atom then splits, releasing energy, and that energy could be used to propel a rocket. Nuclear reactors have been used to power things like submarines, but its use in spaceflight has often been overlooked in favour of chemical-based propulsion.

As to whether the final product will appear just like the mockup shown in the tweet, well, that remains to be seen. In a promo video on the company’s website, Head of Innovation Products and Services Jake Thompson says that the company is in the “concept, design, development, and testing phase” of the reactor, meaning a full-fledged announcement of the final product is still a ways off. That said, Thompson did say that the company is working on a basic prototype.

Rolls-Royce Holdings announced in 2021 its intent to develop nuclear reactor technology, having obtained $US600 ($833) million in public and private funding to develop its business. Since the nuclear reactor won’t have to carry as much fuel as a chemical propulsion rocket, the entire system will be lighter allowing for faster travel or increased payloads. The company says that the reactor could serve as both a new form of propulsion and a power source for bases on the Moon or Mars, and Rolls-Royce claims that they will have a nuclear reactor ready to send to the Moon by 2029.

Rolls-Royce is not the only party working on rocket propulsion outside of traditional chemical fuel. NASA and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency announced a collaboration to develop a thermal rocket engine that could improve the time it takes to get to deep space. Likewise, NASA had a successful test of a rotating detonation rocket engine, which uses less fuel and provides more thrust than current propulsion systems.

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