Rolls-Royce reveals nuclear Space Micro-Reactor model

A model of a miniature nuclear reactor that could power lunar and space exploration has been unveiled by Roll-Royce at the UK Space Conference.

The Space Micro-Reactor is intended to act as a continuous source of off-Earth power, potentially enabling a future Moon base or helping to propel the spacecraft of tomorrow. Though not expected to be mission-ready until the early 2030s, Rolls-Royce displayed a model incorporating its early work on the reactor at last week’s UK Space Conference in Belfast.

The project received £2.9m of UK Space Agency funding in March 2023. Since then, the company’s Novel Nuclear team has been working on the design of the Space Micro-Reactor, including areas such as fuel type, heat transfer and electricity generation. According to Rolls-Royce, the Novel Nuclear team worked with aerospace colleagues in Bristol on the power conversion component of the reactor. External collaborators so far have included Oxford University, Bangor University, Loughborough University, The Welding Institute and the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC).

“The funding from UK Space Agency has allowed the Rolls-Royce Micro-Reactor programme to work collaboratively with the UK Space Agency, UK academic institutions and industry partners to showcase the best of UK innovation and knowledge in space,” said Abi Clayton, director of Future Programmes for Rolls-Royce.

“This funding has enabled crucial research and development of technologies that bring us closer to making the Micro-Reactor a reality. Our Space Micro-Reactor Concept Model allows us to demonstrate how this technology will bring immense benefits for both space and Earth."

As well as its primary role of delivering power for space exploration, the project partners believe the reactor could have commercial and defence use cases, potentially helping industry to decarbonise.

“Developing space nuclear power offers a unique chance to support innovative technologies and grow our nuclear, science and space engineering skills base,” said Dr Paul Bate, chief executive of the UK Space Agency.

“This innovative research by Rolls-Royce could lay the groundwork for powering continuous human presence on the Moon, while enhancing the wider UK space sector, creating jobs and generating further investment. Micro-Reactor technology will deliver the capability to support commercial and defence use cases alongside providing a solution to decarbonise industry and provide clean, safe and reliable energy.”