China develops 1 MW reactor for space use

The reactor can produce one megawatt of electricity, 100 times more powerful than a similar device that NASA plans to put on the lunar surface by 2030.

Robot Jade Rabbit 2 works in the dark side of the Moon.  Photo: CNSA

Robot Jade Rabbit 2 works in the dark side of the Moon. Photo: CNSA

Chinese scientists are developing a powerful nuclear reactor for missions to the Moon and Mars. The project was born with funding from the central government in 2019. Although the authorities have not revealed technical details and launch date, the technical design of the prototype machine has been completed recently and some key parts. The latch has been fabricated, as confirmed by two scientists involved in the project.

For China, this is an ambitious project with unprecedented challenges. The only nuclear device the country has ever launched into space is the small radioactive battery pack on the Jade Rabbit 2, the first rover to land on the dark side of the Moon in 2019. That device can generate only a few. watts of heat to help the robot get through the long nights on the moon. Chemical fuels and solar cells are not enough to meet the needs of human space exploration, which is expected to expand significantly with settlements on the Moon or Mars.

The first nuclear-powered device to go into orbit was the SNAP-10A, launched by the US in 1965. The device produced 500 watts of power for more than a month before shutting down forever. A major challenge facing China’s megawatt-class reactors is cooling technology, according to the paper by a research team led by Jiang Jieqiong, a professor at the Institute of Nuclear Safety Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Country in Hefei.

Only part of the heat generated by the reactor is used to produce electricity, the rest needs to be dispersed rapidly in space to avoid nuclear meltdown. To solve this problem, the reactor will use an umbrella-like folding structure to increase the total surface area of ​​the waste heat sink, according to Jiang et al. Due to its compact size, the space reactor will operate at much higher temperatures than on Earth (about 2,000 degrees Celsius at the core). The furnace will use liquid lithium as a coolant to increase the efficiency of electricity production. But lithium will turn solid at temperatures below 180 degrees Celsius. This is another obstacle the Chinese team needs to overcome.

Above ground, nuclear power plants need maintenance checks every few years. Some parts need to be replaced due to erosion from the radioactive environment. Materials and hardware in space reactors must also be of a much higher standard to meet the needs of long-term space missions.

The Chinese government and military have funded many programs to develop space nuclear reactors with various technologies, according to research by space scientist Zhang Ze at the Shanghai Institutes of Space Propulsion. Sea. Instead of building a large reactor, several research groups are developing small capacity devices. These modules are easier to build and can be stacked to form larger machines with a capacity of several megawatts of electricity, enough to power the ion engines that carry astronauts to Mars.

An Khang (Follow SCMP)

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