Rolls-Royce is developing a nuclear reactor that it hopes will be capable of powering mining operations on the Moon and even Mars, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Dave Gordon, head of the company’s defence division, said it is studying how a micro-nuclear reactor could be used to propel rockets while in space at huge speeds. He revealed that Rolls-Royce is investigating whether that technology could then be redeployed to provide energy for drilling, processing and storage for socalled ‘Moon mining’.
Valuable natural resources on the Moon include water, which can be converted to rocket fuel, and rare elements and metals that are used in energy production and electrical goods back on Earth.
The nuclear technology could eventually pave the way for ‘Mars mining’, Gordon added. Once developed, Rolls-Royce will likely hunt for specialists in rockets and mining with which to partner.
The British engineering giant launched a joint study into nuclear power options for space rockets with the UK Space Agency earlier this year.
As part of this, Rolls-Royce set itself an ambition to halve journey times to Mars to three months.
Gordon said the project had shot up Rolls-Royce’s agenda thanks to space exploration work by billionaires Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon, and Elon Musk, the brains behind Tesla electric cars.
‘If we were having this conversation a couple of years ago, you’d have looked at me in a bemused way,’ he told the MoS at the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair in London.
‘But now because of the work that companies like [Bezos’s] Blue Origin, and [Musk’s] SpaceX are doing, it suddenly becomes not just credible, but actually there’s a demand there.’ He added: ‘We’re the only company on the planet that does mechanical, electrical, and nuclear. We’re the only one that does a full end-to-end lifecycle of nuclear capability.’
Gordon said Rolls-Royce could draw on its experience in developing nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Navy for 60 years.
He added that submarines were similar to spacecraft as they are ‘non-air breathing environments, long endurance, super reliable with a very dense power source’.
The engineer’s nuclear-powered submarine capabilities were in focus last week as Britain and the US announced they would help Australia build eight new vessels, angering China and France.
Rolls-Royce and fellow UK firm BAE Systems are seen as contenders to work on the subs.
Hot stuff: The Rolls-Royce micro reactor connected to power to a moon base
The Moon’s main resources include helium-3, a rare element used in industries such as nuclear fusion which could power onward journeys deeper in to space, using the Moon as a refuelling station.
The Moon also boasts water, which could be used to sustain life and can be converted to rocket fuel, and rare earth metals used in electronics such as smartphones and the latest cars. Currently 90 per cent of the world’s rare earth metal supply comes from China. Methods of storage and transportation of resources mined on the Moon back to Earth is a key debate among researchers.
Gordon said: ‘There’s a huge shortage of rare earth metals. We know they exist on other planets because they all formed from the same thing. This genuinely isn’t rocket science. So mining asteroids, the Moon and Mars will happen, hopefully, in my lifetime.’
The nuclear reactor would only be used in space. It would be launched from Earth as payload on a normal rocket up to earth orbit. Then, the reactor system would then be ‘switched on’ to provide propulsion to travel from earth orbit to Mars.
A big space ship can be constructed in earth orbit in a similar way to the international space station, using several normal rocket launches to take everything up there. When completed, the reactor would be used for super high speed propulsion to Mars.
No nation can claim sovereignty of the Moon under the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, but the US and Soviet Union brought back lunar soil samples in the 1960s and 1970s. Nuclear systems have been used on the Moon before. In 1969, the crew of Apollo 12 used a generator to provide the electricity to operate scientific instruments.
Gordon, 53, said nuclear power was the obvious choice of power source, particularly in exploration: ‘The further you go away from the sun, solar is less useful. If you’ve got a dense, reliable source [like nuclear], it seems credible. So we’ve been speaking to the UK Space Agency about it.’
Designs for the micro-reactor, seen by The Mail on Sunday, show a device powered by a ‘poppy seed’ size of uranium coated in silicon and housed in metal and connected to a Stirling engine allowing the heat to be converted into electricity.
Gordon admitted that to bring the project to fruition would take ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’, but that early stage work could be achieved for far less.
Rolls-Royce hopes to produce a demonstration vehicle by the end of the decade. It says it could lead to 10,000 jobs being created across the UK supply chain.
China’s already on the dark side
China’s involvement in the race to mine on the Moon should put Western nations ‘on alert’, MPs and academics have said.
Beijing has launched a series of unmanned trips to the dark side of the Moon to collect samples, including the Chang’e 5 mission late last year.
The Communist state has also said it wants to build a human-friendly lunar base between 2036 and 2045, which could be used for mining.
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the Commons defence select committee, said: ‘We are in a soft power war. China can cause huge amounts of damage in space – taking out satellites used for navigation, communication and financial transactions. They’re beginning to mine the dark side of the moon and you cannot trust their intentions.’
Dr Mark Hilborne, of the Space Security Research Group at King’s College London, added: ‘You do not want China to get a stranglehold on the Moon’s assets. Western powers should be on alert.’