China's space program has completed a prototype design for a powerful nuclear reactor, a report from the South China Morning Post reveals.
The country's space program is building the device to keep up with other space agencies that have also drawn plans to go nuclear, such as NASA, which recently made a call for private firms to develop a nuclear fission system to power missions on the Moon within 10 years.
China and the U.S. enter a new space race
China's space program, which has already built some of the components for its full reactor, wants to power future missions to the Moon and Mars with nuclear energy. China's reactor will be able to generate one megawatt of electric power, making it 100 times more powerful than the device NASA wants to send to the Moon by 2030. NASA's nuclear fission system will be capable of providing roughly 40 kilowatts of power, which the U.S. space agency says would be enough to power 30 households for a decade.
Last month, China launched its second crewed mission to its space station. NASA recently pushed back its Artemis Moon landings to 2025 from their original launch date of 2024, partly due to a protracted legal dispute with Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin over the awarding of a Moon lander contract to SpaceX. This led NASA administrator Bill Nelson to raise the concern that China might send humans to the Moon before NASA gets there again.
NASA says it must go nuclear to compete with China
Though little is known in the way of specifications when it comes to the secretive nuclear reactor project, the South China Morning Post states that two scientists who took part in the project confirmed to them this week that the prototype for the reactor was completed, as well as some critical components of the finished reactor.
There is some concern that the secrecy surrounding China's space nuclear reactor program means there may be a lack of government regulation in the case of an accident, such as a launch accident that could spread radioactive materials in orbit. "It is urgently needed to establish a safety evaluation and management system that is suitable to our country’s technological status, increase the transparency in research and development progress to reduce the concerns of the general public," Zhang Ze, a space scientist at the Shanghai Institute of Space Propulsion, told the South China Morning Post.
In 2019, China also sent a small radioactive battery to the Moon aboard the Yutu 2 rover, which was the first to land on the far side of the Moon in 2019. That device was only capable of generating a few watts to help the rover make during protracted lunar nights. The new nuclear reactor prototype is part of a much more ambitious project that sees China aim to position itself as the world leader in space. In fact, earlier this year, NASA stated at a Congressional committee hearing that the U.S. must up its efforts to develop nuclear-powered spacecraft in order to compete with China.