A nuclear reactor intended for outer space reportedly passed a comprehensive performance evaluation by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. Designed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the reactor can generate one megawatt of electricity for spacecraft power supply and propulsion. One megawatt of energy is enough to power 10 International Space Stations.

China’s central government funded and launched the project in 2019. In November 2021, the researchers involved in the project confirmed that the engineering design of a prototype machine was completed. The reactor passed a comprehensive performance evaluation, but no technical details nor plans for the nuclear power system have been released. 

Nuclear in Space

Nuclear energy has an extensive history in space, and many scientists believe that the U.S. needs to put more money into nuclear research for space. Nuclear engines could replace chemical fuels in spacecraft to provide high levels of power and reduce flight time (reducing astronauts’ exposure to cosmic radiation). Nuclear reactors could also be used to power crewed outposts on the moon and Mars. 

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

NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Department of Defense all have ongoing nuclear projects. For example, NASA’s Artemis program may test out space power technologies ahead of future Mars exploration. DARPA is also investing in nuclear propulsion for space vehicles in order to demonstrate that an engine can fly vast distances in the area between Earth and the Moon.

China has also been working on more nuclear space proposals, such as using a nuclear space reactor to provide nuclear power for propulsion. A Neptune orbiter mission concept using electric propulsion powered by a nuclear reactor has also been published. 

For more space news, check out James Webb’s incredible images of Neptune, the newly discovered planet that could be suitable for life, the graphic designer behind the James Webb Telescope images, and Hilton’s plan to build a space hotel.

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