China Just Tested A Nuclear-Powered ‘Shrinkable’ Engine For Its Mars Spaceship

With all the space talk around, countries and mega enterprises are finding ways to make space travel cheaper and more common. In the midst of this, China has come up with something amazing: a new nuclear reactor that is reportedly shrinkable and can fuel Chinese space expeditions.

The lithium-cooled nuclear reactor would expand to be as large as a twenty-story building from a container-sized volume. If this materializes, Starship would have a rival in the form of this Chinese spacecraft. Even more interesting to note is that this reactor has passed various initial tests and is inching closer to deployment in space. The two extremes of the reactor’s size would be a twenty-story building with a heatsink in space and an eight-ton container on the ground. The compressed (container) form would make it immensely easy to load on the rocket.

The point to note here is that researchers have concluded that a nuclear-powered spacecraft takes 7 months to reach Mars, whereas a nuclear-powered spacecraft would take only three months. This provides a significant edge to this Chinese endeavor over Musk’s SpaceX.

Another important thing is that this reactor can produce temperatures up to 2,329 degrees Fahrenheit (1,276 degrees Celsius), achieved through uranium fuel fission. This temperature is way higher than what any other commercial nuclear plant can achieve, the SCMP reports

This reactor can achieve an efficient and continuous energy supply for a decade. The intense heat causes the gases to expand, which will then become the generator’s source. SCMP also reports that liquid lithium would be the best coolant for the reactor as it has high thermal conductivity. 

According to the research paper, the heat exchanger is made of tungsten alloy. Tungsten can efficiently exchange heat and block harmful radiation at the same time. Other high-temperature corrosion-resistant materials are also used in the reactor.

Initial tests demonstrated that coupling a lithium-based cooling system with a Brayton generator is feasible. Now, engineers use AI to identify and solve faults in long-term uncrewed space reactors.

“Our country is in a new era,” Wu and his team said. “We plan to embark on deep space exploration missions such as manned lunar exploration, asteroid exploration, flying by Jupiter, and exploring the edges of the solar system. [Space reactors] will be crucial in these endeavors,” they added.

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