China Could Beat the U.S. at the Space Race to Mars: Nuclear Reactor 100 Times More Powerful Than NASA Device

China is the biggest competitor of the United States on many levels. This includes economically, geopolitically, technologically, and militarily. Now, China aims to surpass the United States in a sphere that it has dominated for decades: space exploration. Specifically, China is developing a nuclear reactor for a spaceship that’s 100 times more powerful than NASA’s similar device. The country plans to use the device for a mission to Mars. This device could enable China to beat the U.S. at the space race for a human-crewed mission to the red planet. 

One-megawatt nuclear device for powering Chinese missions to Mars and the moon

Long March-2F rocket, highlighting nuclear device that could enable China to beat the US at the space race to Mars
Long March-2F carrier rocket in China | STR/AFP via Getty Images

According to the South China Morning Post, Chinese researchers are working on a nuclear device that the country aims to use for its upcoming missions to Mars and the moon. The reactor can produce one megawatt of energy. This is 100 times more powerful than the nuclear device that NASA plans on using for its mission to the moon by 2030.

With funding from the Chinese central government, the project was launched in 2019. Two scientists that spoke to the South China Morning Post confirmed that the China National Space Administration completed a prototype of the nuclear device. This includes critical components. 

The one-megawatt nuclear device is a significant leap for China’s space program. Before this device, the only publicly known nuclear device that the country used for space exploration was a minuscule radioactive battery in the land rover that landed on the moon in 2019. This device could only generate a few watts of energy. The land rover used the nuclear device as a source of heat during the long and cold lunar nights.

Why is a nuclear reactor required for a Mars mission?

Chinese astronauts, highlighting nuclear device that could enable China to beat the US at the space race to Mars
Chinese astronauts for space station mission | STR/AFP via Getty Images

Rockets propelled by a chemical fuel or solar energy may not be enough for long-range space exploration. This includes a human-crewed mission to Mars. A researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who requested to the South China Morning Post to remain anonymous, stated, “Nuclear power is the most hopeful solution. Other nations have launched some ambitious plans. China cannot afford the cost of losing this race.”

Considerable secrecy about Chinese nuclear device

Like many other Chinese government-sponsored projects, the nuclear device is shrouded in secrecy. The news about the one-megawatt nuclear device is eye-opening. However, even if true, it’s just a prototype version, and the Chinese government hasn’t officially confirmed it. 

A major challenge that the device faces is cooling. It’s one thing to create this powerful of a nuclear device. However, it’s an even bigger challenge to cool it safely. Only a small amount of energy from the device is usable, while the rest will need to dissipate into space. Otherwise, a nuclear meltdown could occur.

Furthermore, while there is considerable oversight in the U.S. for developing nuclear reactors and rockets for space exploration, this is not the case in China. With so much secrecy for its nuclear device, there are no laws in China that could help prevent a nuclear meltdown or failed launch of a nuclear-powered rocket.

Chinese nationalism for space exploration fuels race with the U.S.

Space exploration is a huge deal in China and a source of nationalist pride. When visiting China in 2002, I met with a Chinese colleague that had posters of spacecraft, planets, and other space-related images all over the walls of her office. She beamed with nationalistic pride about Chinese ambitions for space exploration. My colleague then noted that many other Chinese people share these sentiments.

In the two decades since this meeting, nationalism for space exploration has increased even more, as detailed by Asian Pioneers and prominent publicacations such as the Washington Post. This coincides with the rise of China as the country has grown more powerful and technologically advanced.

The space race to Mars between China and the U.S. is reminiscent of the space race to the moon between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. We’ll have to see which country will put a human on Mars first. 

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