China’s mysterious space nuclear reactor allegedly can power 10 International Space Stations

Little is known about the specifications of the project, but it is edging closer.
Deena Theresa
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Space shuttle rocket launch in the clouds.

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Last November, South China Morning Post reportedly announced that China was indeed developing a powerful nuclear reactor for its moon and Mars missions. Two researchers involved in the project confirmed that the engineering design of a prototype machine was completed, and some critical components were built.

Now, SpaceNews has reported that the reactor has passed a comprehensive performance evaluation by the China's Ministry of Science and Technology. However, the Chinese media outlets cited by the publication have not released any technical details of the reactor.

Designed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the dynamic reactor can generate one megawatt of electricity — 100 times more powerful than a similar device Nasa plans to put on the surface of the moon by 2030 — for spacecraft power supply and propulsion.

That is enough to power the equivalent of 10 International Space Stations, Space said. Previously, a NASA estimate had revealed that the complex receives 120 kilowatts of electrical power at most.

The project was launched with funding from the central government in 2019.

Already a step ahead with nuclear-powered space missions

Robotic missions to outer planets receive extremely low levels of energy from the sun, rendering solar power generation "useless". For such missions, nuclear fission systems offer efficient levels of power and electricity propulsion.

China has been actively pursuing and expanding its deep space capabilities in recent years, developing cryogenic rockets, reusable launchers, and suborbital spaceplanes. It is also highly experienced in using nuclear power during space missions.

The country is highly experienced in using nuclear power during space missions, with the Chang'e 3 moon lander, for example, using a plutonium-powered nuclear generator to survive the frigid, two-week lunar night.

In 2019, senior Chinese space exploration official Wu Weiren, director of the newly-established Tiandu deep space exploration laboratory, called for developments in nuclear power for space to meet future mission requirements.

Chinese mission proposals using a nuclear space reactor to provide power for propulsion include Voyager-like missions. A pre-research paper published in Scientia Sinica Technologica reveals the country's plan for a Neptune orbiter powered by nuclear fission. Another example would be the Chang'e 3 moon lander, which used a plutonium-powered nuclear generator to survive a two-week lunar night.

The U.S. needs to move at a fast pace

Experts from NASA and the aerospace industry had warned in a government hearing last year that the U.S. needed to move quickly if it wants to keep up.

"Strategic competitors including China are aggressively investing in a wide range of space technologies, including nuclear power and propulsion," Bhavya Lal, NASA's senior advisor for budget and finance, said in the hearing that focused on nuclear propulsion in space. "The United States needs to move at a fast pace to stay competitive and to remain a leader in the global space community."

Earlier, NASA had discussed how nuclear propulsion electric propulsion systems could accelerate crewed missions to Mars, over traditional chemical rockets. "Nuclear electric propulsion systems accelerate spacecraft for extended periods and can propel a Mars mission for a fraction of the propellant of high-thrust systems," NASA said.

In February, a panel of international experts from the public and private sectors at an International Atomic Energy Agency webinar affirmed that advances in nuclear fission and fusion would be imperative for deep-space travel. Nuclear energy could "supply electricity for onboard systems and instrumentation, and power a sustained human presence on celestial bodies in the solar system".

"Nuclear technology has long played a vital role in prominent space missions," Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy, said in a statement. "But future missions could rely on nuclear-powered systems for a much broader spectrum of applications. Our pathway to the stars runs through the atom."

Currently, NASA, DARPA, and the Department of Defense all have nuclear projects ongoing.

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