Rolls-Royce set itself an ambition to halve journey times to Mars
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.
Valuable natural resources on the Moon include water, which can be converted to rocket fuel, and rare elements, metals that are used in energy production and electrical goods back on Earth.
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 high speeds. He revealed that Rolls-Royce is investigating whether that technology could then be redeployed to provide energy for drilling, processing and storage for so-called 'Moon mining'.
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. 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.
The Moon's main resources include helium-3, a rare element used in industries such as nuclear fusion which could power onward journeys deeper into 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.
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.
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.