Transforming space exploration

Our University is spearheading the development of new power generation technologies for space exploration as part of a European Space Agency funded programme.

Leicester is a global leader in the development of space nuclear power systems for electrical power generation, spacecraft heating and thermal management in the form of radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) and radioisotope heater units (RHUs).

Now, researchers from the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Space Research Centre have built the first prototype RTG and first RHU destined to utilise waste heat from americium-241. The Leicester led team has successfully built and tested 10 Watt RTG and 3 Watt RHU prototypes that use electrical heating to simulate the heat generated by an americium source.

Richard Ambrosi is Professor of Space Instrumentation & Space Nuclear Power Systems at the University of Leicester and is the project lead at the University.

He said: “Missions using nuclear power offer greater versatility in challenging environments, with one mission delivering the science that might only be achieved from several missions using solar power, with considerably longer operational lifetimes (e.g. Voyager, Ulysses, Cassini). In many cases nuclear systems can enable missions that would otherwise be impossible.” 

National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) is leading the production of americium-241 by chemical extraction from the UK’s civil plutonium stocks, as well as the development of the americium fuel pellet form. NNL will provide the fuel for the power systems being developed by the University of Leicester and partners.

The University of Leicester, together with Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, Queen Mary University of London, European Thermodynamics Ltd., Lockheed Martin UK and Fluid Gravity Engineering Ltd. have developed and tested a 10 Watt prototype of a radioisotope thermoelectric generator.

Designed to be fuelled by americium-241, the modular RTG will be able to generate up to 50 W of electrical power. This programme builds on the successful development and testing of a smaller scale 4 W lab-based RTG prototype.