Rolls-Royce, known not only for its wonder cars, is also an engineering design company for which space is the ultimate frontier – in this case, literally. As Interesting Engineering reports, the company has teamed up with the UK Space Agency to develop a new type of reactor specifically for deep space exploration. Nuclear engines have long been expected to speed up space travel and reduce transit times, which will be particularly important for missions to Mars.
As expected of a nuclear reactor, the Rolls-Royce micro-nuclear reactor is designed to harness the energy generated by the fission of atoms. What makes the design really special, however, is the focus on safety: each uranium particle is surrounded by several protective layers, ensuring that the reactor can withstand the harsh conditions of space. Most systems like this only start the chain reaction once the vehicle is in space – further reducing the risk. As the official press release puts it:
“Nuclear power has the potential to transform space exploration and this innovative concept with Rolls-Royce could help us get the next generation of astronauts into space faster and for longer, significantly expanding our knowledge of the universe.”
A Rolls-Royce Micro-Reactor is designed to use an inherently safe and extremely robust fuel form. Each uranium particle is encapsulated in multiple protective layers that act as a containment system, allowing it to withstand extreme conditions.https://t.co/OOc9kBGXDx pic.twitter.com/wkXmZgzhrs— Rolls-Royce (@RollsRoyce) January 27, 2023
The press release also reveals that Rolls-Royce has a rich heritage in nuclear development, so it is no coincidence that they were chosen for this development. Dr Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said:
“Nuclear propulsion is a revolutionary concept that could enable future deep space missions that take us to Mars and beyond.”
As noted in the IE article, the field is also of interest to NASA, which recently selected a concept for Phase I development as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program. The paper also describes the many advantages of using nuclear propulsion for space travel. It could reduce the journey time to Mars from 8-9 months to 45 days or less. In other words, it would significantly reduce the time during which astronauts are exposed to cosmic radiation and the time during which a catastrophic problem could occur.