China’s nuclear spaceships will be ‘mining asteroids and flying tourists’ as it aims to overtake US in space race
State media publishes Chinese scientists’ ambitious plans to revolutionise space travel and exploration in coming decades
China is on course to develop nuclear-powered space shuttles by 2040, and will have the ability to mine resources from asteroids and build solar power plants in space soon after, according to state media.
The ambitious claims, made by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology – the country’s leading rocket developer and manufacturer – were published on the front page of People’s Daily on Friday.
According to the report, a new “nuclear fleet” of carrier rockets and reusable hybrid-power carriers will be ready for “regular, large scale” interplanetary flights, and carrying out commercial exploration and exploitation of natural resources by the mid-2040s.
China will catch up with the United States on conventional rocket technology by 2020, it said. In 2025, it is expected to launch a reusable suborbital carrier and start suborbital space tourism.
By 2030, it aims to put astronauts on the moon and have the capabilities to bring samples back from Mars.
In the 2040s, a nuclear-powered fleet will be ready to carry out mining operations on asteroids and planets, the report said.
“By 2045, China will have the best transport system in space,” Li Hong, director of the academy said in an article posted on the organisation’s website on Thursday.
Local scientists said the plan represented China’s most ambitious space programme yet.
“The nuclear vessels are built to colonise the solar system and beyond,” Wang Changhui, associate professor of aerospace propulsion at the School of Astronautics at Beihang University in Beijing, said.
Most spacecraft today use rocket engines that burn chemical fuel for propulsion and get their electricity from solar panels.
But such fuel was quickly depleted, and the Sun’s rays got weaker the further a spaceship went, Wang said.
A nuclear spaceship would have a reactor loaded with radioactive fuel for fission – the splitting of atoms that produces large amounts of energy.
That energy could be used to generate a driving force as well as electricity for the craft’s on-board equipment, he said.
The technology itself is nothing new. During the cold war, dozens of satellites equipped with various types of nuclear reactors were launched by the former Soviet Union and the United States. Nearly all of them were spy satellites operating at very high altitudes and with huge power demands.
But the nuclear space race was eventually postponed, partly due to its threat to humanity. In 1978, Russian spy satellite Kosmos 954 crashed and sprayed radioactive waste over an area of 124,000 square kilometres in Canada.
More than 30 dead nuclear satellites are still drifting in space and could fall to earth at any time over the next few thousand years.
“Safety issues will be the top challenge for the Chinese nuclear fleet,” Wang said. “If they come down, it will cause a global nuclear disaster.”
According to China’s space authorities, the nuclear shuttles would be docked at a transport hub that would orbit the earth. Reusable spacecraft would be used to transport people and cargo to and from the shuttles.
But even if they were permanently in space, the nuclear-powered vessels were still at risk of being hit by meteorites or even colliding with one another, Wang said.
Regardless of those concerns, a mainland space expert said the targets given in the People’s Daily report would be almost impossible to achieve.
“China does not even have a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to sail the oceans,” the researcher, who requested not to be named, said.
“Building a nuclear space fleet will remain on paper in the foreseeable future. We have not even solved some basic problems with conventional rocket technology yet,” he said.
A Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket, designed for lunar missions and the construction of space stations, veered off course and crashed into the Pacific Ocean in July.
The cause of the accident is still under investigation.