China and the US Are Racing to Go Nuclear in Space

China has disclosed new details of its space exploration plan in the next decade, including the use of nuclear energy to power its moon base, intensifying its space race with the U.S. 

“We are now developing a new system that uses nuclear energy to address the moon station’s long-term, high-power energy demands,” said Wu Weiren, chief designer of the country’s Lunar Exploration Program, in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV on Monday. 

The outpost is developed in conjunction with Russia and is expected to be built by 2028 on the lunar south pole, which has patches of sunny spots as well as permanently shadowed craters. The U.S. has identified potential landing sites in the same area for its Artemis 3 mission, which is scheduled to launch in late 2025 to put Americans back on the moon using a SpaceX lander.

China is also expecting to send astronauts to the moon within the next decade, Wu said.

According to Wu, the station will comprise a lander, a hopper, an orbiter, and a rover that can carry astronauts around. The station could also be a launchpad for further missions in space and includes a communication facility that allows the outpost to send signals to Earth and other planets such as Mars. 

Chang’e 7 and 8, two robotic missions scheduled to launch in 2026 and later, will explore the south pole and lay the foundation for the outpost, Wu added.

Last year, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences described nuclear power as “the most hopeful solution,” as chemical fuel and solar panels are no longer sufficient to meet the energy demands of the space exploration missions, the South China Morning Post reported. According to the report, China is developing a nuclear reactor that is expected to generate one megawatt of electric power, enough to power around a thousand households.

The plan puts China in direct competition with the U.S., which is aiming to set up a similar outpost over the next decade. The first iteration of Artemis Base Camp was to be set up by 2030, but a leaked internal document suggested the timeline has been shifted to 2034.

The U.S. is also looking into the use of nuclear energy to power the base camp. In June, NASA and the U.S. department of energy gave three companies $5 million each to come up with designs for a “durable, high-power, sun-independent” fission reactor, which Washington hopes to launch by 2031.

Although China is considered a latecomer to the nuclear race in space, it has made great strides in recent years, drawing concerns from the U.S. government. NASA chief Nelson warned in July that China is planning to “take over” the moon and keep everyone out—a claim the Chinese foreign ministry vehemently denied.

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