100 times more powerful than US technology, China says its nuclear reactor for space missions will surpass NASA’s device

Chinese scientists are currently building a powerful nuclear reactor for their expeditions to the Moon and Mars. Beijing says its reactor will be 100 times more powerful than the device the US space agency wants to install on the moon’s surface by 2030.

The new technology is part of a project supported by the Chinese government, according to South China Morning Post. The Asian giant has yet to reveal the exact launch date or technical specifications of the powerful new reactor that will produce one megawatt of electrical power.

Two of the scientists involved in the project launched in 2019, however, admitted that the technical design of the prototype machine had already been completed and that some critical components had also been built.

Components of the Long March 5B (Y2) to launch the central module of the Chinese space station at a facility in Tianjin. Credit: CMSA

One of the Chinese space scientists involved in the project said the most promising solution is nuclear power. Other countries have started to implement ambitious programs, and China cannot afford to lose this race at all costs.

A Chinese expert claims that to meet the objectives of human space exploration, chemical fuel and solar panels will no longer suffice; The thirst for additional sources of energy is likely to increase dramatically if there are human settlements on the moon or Mars in the future.

Nuclearization of space?

SNAP-10A, launched by the United States in 1965, was the first nuclear device in orbit. Before being permanently shut down, the device produced 500 watts of electricity for almost a month.

On the other hand, the only nuclear device that China has deployed in space is a small radioactive battery on his lunar rover Yutu 2. Only a few watts of heat can be generated by this device to help the rover get through the long lunar nights.

File: Yutu-2 leaving Chang e-4-iau1901a.jpg
The Yutu-2 rover leaving the Chinese lunar spacecraft Chang’e-4.

Many countries are now struggling to establish their supremacy in space. Then-US President Donald Trump issued an executive order in his last days in office to speed up the use of nuclear energy in US civilian and military space programs. He also has sharp in space as the next battleground for the great powers.

Recently, NASA issued a tender for the development of a 10 kilowatt nuclear fission device capable of supporting a human in the long term. presence on the moon within a decade.

The plan is to deploy a fission surface power system by 2026, with a flight system, lander and reactor in place. The facility will be fully built and integrated on Earth, then thoroughly tested for safety and functionality.

fission surface power system on Mars
Artist’s concept of a fission surface power system on Mars. (Credit: NASA)

In addition, Russia has also indicated its intention to launch a massive TEM-powered spacecraft, a megawatt-sized nuclear reactor, before 2030. The spacecraft would be capable of operating in Earth’s lower orbit for over a decade while carrying out more missions to the moon or beyond using nuclear power.

Democritos, a side project led by the European Space Agency, will test a 200 kW space reactor on the ground by 2023. Additionally, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will not put weapons in space, but that it would be required to safeguard its assets, including 2,000 satellites in orbit. Space becomes a “Operational area” for NATO too.

New reactor, new challenges?

China has indicated that the new nuclear space technology is so grand that the project could face difficulties as its launch date nears. According to a report released by a project team led by Jiang Jieqiong, a professor at the Institute of Nuclear Safety Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Hefei, cooling technology is one of the biggest challenges for the space reactor. Chinese.

Only part of the heat produced by the reactor would be used to generate electricity; the remains should dissipate quickly into space to avoid collapse. To solve this problem, the reactor would use a folding umbrella-shaped structure to improve the overall surface area of ​​the waste heat radiators.

China-space
The Chinese Long March 5B rocket carrying a module of the Tiangong space station takes off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on April 29, 2021.

The space reactor would operate at a much higher temperature than those on Earth due to its compact size. It would use liquid lithium as a coolant to increase the efficiency of power generation. However, at temperatures below 180 degrees Celsius, lithium would solidify, posing another challenge for Chinese researchers.

A ground-based power plant requires routine maintenance every few years, and some components must be replaced due to erosion induced by the radioactive environment. However, to meet the demands of long-term space missions, the materials and equipment of a space reactor must reach a much higher standard.

Another approach that China is taking is rather than establishing a single large reactor, many research teams in China have developed devices with lower power output. These small modules were easier to build and could be combined to create a larger machine capable of producing several megawatts of electricity, enough to power massive ion thrusters and take astronauts to Mars.

However, the Chinese space authorities have yet to decide how they will proceed. It is possible that the solution is a mixture of technologies.

China plans its own space station

The launch of the main module because the most recent Chinese space station in orbit in April attracted more international attention than expected for all the wrong reasons. The main rocket thruster plunged ominously to Earth after reaching space, in what is called an “uncontrolled reentry.”

Debris splashed into the Indian Ocean in May, narrowly bypassing the Maldives and sparking criticism over the launch procedures for China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5B.

Concept of the Chinese space station.
Concept of the Chinese space station.

The first two Chinese space stations were prototypes that only lasted a few months, but the next one is expected to last a decade or more. President Xi linked it to Mao Zedong’s call for “two bombs, one satellite,” which refers to China’s race to produce a nuclear weapon, equip it with an intercontinental ballistic missile and launch a satellite in orbit. It is hailed as proof of China’s prowess in space, as are all of the Communist Party’s triumphs.

The International Space Station, which was built jointly by the United States, Russia and others, is approaching the end of its expected life in 2024.

Russia has declared that it will leave by 2025 and plans to launch its own space station by 2030. If the station is shut down, China could for some time be the only country in the world to operate a space station.

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