Nuclear projects receive UK space funding boost

08 April 2024

Two projects featuring nuclear energy are among 11 international space projects selected to receive funding from the UK Space Agency. Rolls-Royce's collaboration with BWXT receives GBP1.18 million (USD1.5 million) to further its work on fission nuclear systems for space power missions, while an international project led by the University of Leicester receives GBP800,000.

A Rolls-Royce Micro-Reactor could provide power for a lunar base (Image: Rolls-Royce)

A total of GBP13 million of funding, the second phase of investment awarded through the Agency's GBP20 million International Bilateral Fund (IBF), is being announced today at the 39th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, USA, the UK Space Agency said. This follows a first phase announced last year, which provided funds of up to GBP75,000 each for 32 projects which then entered into a competitive process to receive Phase 2 funding.

The funding to Rolls-Royce Submarines and BWXT Advanced Technologies LLC is for a project to "identify the optimum technologies for a fission nuclear system which balances flexibility to a range of space power missions and maximises performance whilst minimising programme and technical risk."

The second nuclear project to receive Phase 2 funding is a collaboration between the University of Leicester and partners from the UK, USA and Japan who will work together to identify a range of mission opportunities for UK space nuclear power technologies. The collaboration also includes the development of hybrid power systems with existing US conversion technologies.

"We want to draw on the best global talent to push the boundaries of new technology such as AI and space nuclear power, enhance our homegrown space capabilities and catalyse investment into the UK economy," Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency Paul Bate said. "The projects supported by our International Bilateral Fund champion the best of British innovation, while strengthening our ties with the wider space community."

UK-US collaboration

All space missions depend on a power source to support systems for communications, life-support and science experiments. Nuclear power has the potential to dramatically increase the duration of future space missions and their scientific value. Space micro-reactors are a solution to meet these requirements in a sustainable and resilient way, Rolls-Royce said.

This latest investment follows GBP2.9 million awarded to Rolls-Royce from the UK Space Agency under the Lunar Surface Nuclear Power Contract and Phase 1 of the IBF in 2023, which culminated in an initial demonstration of a UK lunar modular nuclear reactor. Rolls-Royce unveiled its Space Micro-Reactor Concept Model to show how nuclear power could be used to support a future Moon base for astronauts last December.

The new funding award is part of a larger teaming agreement between Rolls-Royce and BWXT Advanced Technologies LLC which facilitates business collaboration and joint developments of new and novel nuclear applications in terrestrial, space and commercial maritime domains using the core nuclear design and manufacturing strengths of both companies. It will benefit both UK and US space nuclear development programmes for a range of space power missions, the companies said, and further strengthens UK and US collaboration on first-of-a-kind space technology innovation set out under the Atlantic Declaration commitment by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden last year, in which both countries pledged to study "opportunities for co-operation on space nuclear power and propulsion."

"This exciting research by Rolls-Royce to develop space nuclear power is an opportunity to showcase the UK as a spacefaring nation," Anu Ojha, director of Championing Space at the UK Space Agency, said. "Innovative technologies such as this one could pave the way for continuous human presence on the Moon, whilst enhancing the wider UK space sector, creating jobs and generating further investment."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News