Rolls-Royce is developing a nuclear reactor it hopes will be able to power mining operations on the Moon and even Mars, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Dave Gordon, head of the company’s defense division, said he was studying how a micro-nuclear reactor could be used to propel rockets into space at tremendous speeds. He revealed that Rolls-Royce is investigating whether this technology could then be redeployed to provide power for drilling, processing and storage for what’s known as “moon mining.”
The Moon’s precious natural resources include water, which can be converted into rocket fuel, and rare elements and metals that are used in power generation and electrical devices on Earth.
Nuclear technology could eventually pave the way for “mining of Mars,” Gordon added. Once developed, Rolls-Royce will likely look for rocket and mining specialists to partner with.
The British engineering giant launched a joint study on nuclear power options for space rockets with the British Space Agency earlier this year.
In this context, Rolls-Royce has set itself the ambition of halving the travel time to Mars to three months.
Gordon said the project dramatically increased Rolls-Royce’s agenda thanks to the space exploration work of billionaires Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and Elon Musk, the mastermind behind Tesla electric cars.
“If we had had this conversation a few years ago, you would have looked at me puzzled,” he told the Ministry of Defense at the Defense and Security Equipment International armaments fair in London.
“But now, thanks to the work that companies love [Bezos’s] Blue origin, and [Musk’s] SpaceX does it, it suddenly becomes not only believable, but in fact, there is a demand there. He added: “We are the only company on the planet to do mechanics, electricity and nuclear. We are the only one doing a full end-to-end life cycle of nuclear capability.
Gordon said Rolls-Royce could build on its experience in developing nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Navy over the past 60 years.
He added that submarines were similar to spacecraft in that they are “breathless, long-endurance, super-reliable environments with a very dense energy source.”
The engineer’s nuclear-powered submarine capabilities were the center of attention last week as Britain and the United States announced they would help Australia build eight new ships, prompting the anger from China and France.
Rolls-Royce and his British colleague BAE Systems are considered candidates to work on submarines.
Hot stuff: The Rolls-Royce micro-reactor connected to a lunar base
The Moon’s primary resources include helium-3, a rare element used in industries such as nuclear fusion that could fuel deeper space travel, using the Moon as a refueling station.
The Moon also has water, which could be used to sustain life and can be converted into rocket fuel, and rare earth metals used in electronics such as smartphones and the latest cars. Currently, 90 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth metals comes from China. The methods of storing and transporting resources extracted from the Moon to Earth are a key debate among researchers.
Gordon said, “There is a huge shortage of rare earth metals. We know they exist on other planets because they all formed from the same thing. It really isn’t rocket science. So mining asteroids, Moon, and Mars will hopefully happen in my lifetime.
The nuclear reactor would only be used in space. It would be launched from Earth as a payload on a normal rocket into Earth orbit. Then the reactor system would then be “turned on” to provide the propulsion necessary to travel from Earth orbit to Mars.
A large spacecraft can be built in Earth orbit in the same way as the International Space Station, using several normal rocket launches to get everything up there. Once complete, the reactor would be used for very high speed propulsion to Mars.
No nation can claim sovereignty over the moon under the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, but the United States and the Soviet Union brought back samples of lunar soil in the 1960s and 1970s. Nuclear systems have already been used on the Moon. In 1969, the Apollo 12 crew used a generator to provide the electricity needed to run scientific instruments.
Gordon, 53, said nuclear power was the obvious choice of power source, especially in exploration: “The further you are from the sun, the less solar power is useful. If you have a dense and reliable source [like nuclear], that seems believable. So we talked to the British space agency about it.
The designs of 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 to convert heat into electricity.
Gordon admitted that it would take “hundreds of millions of pounds” to complete the project, but the early work could be done for much less.
Rolls-Royce hopes to produce a demonstration vehicle by the end of the decade. He says this could lead to the creation of 10,000 jobs in the UK’s supply chain.
China is already on the dark side
China’s involvement in the moon mining race should put Western countries “on high alert,” MPs and academics said.
Beijing has launched a series of unmanned trips to the far 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 man-friendly moon base between 2036 and 2045, which could be used for mining.
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative Chairman of the Commons Defense Select Committee, said: “We are in a war of soft power. China can cause enormous damage in space – by removing the satellites used for navigation, communication and financial transactions. They are starting to exploit the dark side of the moon and you cannot trust their intentions.
Dr Mark Hilborne, Space Security Research Group at King’s College London, added: “You don’t want China to take over the assets of the moon. Western powers should be on the alert.
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