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China will build a nuclear reactor 100 times more powerful than NASA’s to explore the Moon, Mars

Thursday, November 25, 2021 13:47 PM (GMT+7)

China is developing a powerful nuclear reactor for its mission to explore the Moon and Mars, researchers involved in the project say.

China needs nuclear reactor technology to carry out its ambitious plans in space. (Photo: Xinhua)

The reactor can generate 1 megawatt of electricity, 100 times more powerful than a similar device that NASA plans to send to the Moon by 2030.

The project was launched with funding from the central government in 2019. Although the technical details and launch date have not been disclosed, the technical design of a prototype reactor has been completed recently. and several key components have been fabricated, two scientists involved in the project confirmed to SCMP.

For China, this is an ambitious project with unprecedented challenges. The only nuclear device the country has ever sent into space is a small radioactive battery on the Jade Rabbit 2, the first rover to land on the far side of the Moon in 2019. That battery only has can generate a few watts to keep the rover continuing to operate at night on the Moon.

According to Chinese researchers, chemical fuels and solar panels will no longer be enough to meet the needs of human space exploration, as countries race to explore the Moon and Mars.

“Nuclear power is the most hopeful solution. Other countries have launched some ambitious plans,” said an unnamed researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In the final days of his term, former US President Donald Trump signed an executive order to accelerate the application of nuclear energy to space programs for military and civilian purposes. NASA recently solicited bids from private firms to develop a 10-kilowatt nuclear fission device that could support a sustainable human presence on the Moon for a decade.

Russia has also announced plans to launch a giant spacecraft powered by TEM – a nuclear reactor with a capacity in megawatts, by 2030. Nuclear power will allow the spacecraft to operate for more than a year. decades in low Earth orbit and on other missions to the Moon or beyond.

The European Space Agency has launched a similar project, Democritos, with a 200kW space reactor, scheduled to be tested on the ground in 2023.

The first nuclear-powered device in orbit was SNAP-10A, launched by the US in 1965. The device generated 500 watts of power for more than a month before shutting down forever.

A major challenge facing China’s space reactors is cooling technology, according to a project team paper led by Jiang Jieqiong, a professor at the Institute of Nuclear Safety Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Hefei, taking the lead. The paper was published in the Chinese journal Basic Science in June this year.

Only part of the heat generated by the reactor will be used to produce electricity, the rest must be dissipated rapidly in space to avoid melting. To solve this problem, the reactor will use an umbrella-like foldable structure to increase the surface area of ​​the waste radiators, Jiang and colleagues say.

Because of its compact size, the space reactor will operate at much higher temperatures than on Earth (probably 2,000 degrees Celsius at the core). It will use liquid lithium for cooling to achieve higher power generation efficiency.

However, lithium will become solid when the temperature drops below 180 degrees Celsius. This is the challenge that the Chinese team has to solve.

Above ground, a nuclear power plant needs to be inspected and maintained every few years. Some parts need to be replaced because of wear and tear in the radioactive environment. Materials and hardware in space reactors must meet a much higher standard to meet the demands of long-term space missions.

The Chinese government and military have funded many programs to develop space nuclear reactors with different technical methods, according to a study by space scientist Zhang Ze of the Upper Space Propulsion Institute. Lighthouse in Rocket Propulsion magazine last month.

Instead of building a large reactor, several research groups are developing devices with a smaller capacity. These tiny modules are easier to build and can be arranged to form a larger machine with a power output of several megawatts, enough to power the propulsion engines to send astronauts to Mars.

Officials in China’s aerospace industry have yet to decide which way to go. The final solution may be to combine several different technologies.


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