Asia Pacific / Science & Health

China hopes to build nuclear-powered space shuttle by 2040

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

China is hoping to achieve a “major breakthrough” in its space program by 2040 — including the development of nuclear-powered space shuttles that will allow for the mining of asteroids and “large-scale space exploration” — state-run media have reported.

The ambitious goal of becoming a global leader in space technology by 2045 was detailed in a report issued by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., a major contractor for the country’s space programs, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday.

Developing nuclear-powered space shuttles will “support large-scale exploration and development of space resources, and make mining on asteroids and space solar power plants possible,” Xinhua quoted the report as saying, without adding further details.

According to the road map, China hopes to launch its Long March 8 carrier rocket by 2020, which it says will “significantly lower the cost of sending a satellite into low-medium orbit, boosting the country’s ability to provide commercial launch services” to other countries.

China will also aim to develop reusable suborbital carrier rockets by 2025 and heavy carrier rockets to support manned missions to the surface of the moon and a Mars probe that would bring back samples around 2030.

It also envisions developing completely reusable carrier rockets and “future-generation intelligent carrier rockets” by around 2035, the report said.

“By then, common people will be able to take reusable carrier vehicles to travel in space,” Tang Yagang, the director of carrier rocket development at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, was quoted as saying by state-run China News Service.

By 2045, with advanced space transportation capabilities, China will be able to carry out the large-scale exploration of planets, asteroids and comets in the solar system, as space exploration enters a stage of rapid development, the China News Service quoted Lu Yu, a senior rocket engineer with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., as saying.

Critics of the plan, however, have pointed out that China has not yet even built a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and is still grappling with some basic problems of conventional rocket technology.

Nuclear-powered rocket concepts are not new — the United States conducted studies and ground tests from 1955 to 1972 to determine the viability of such systems. But these tests were halted when plans for a crewed Mars mission were deferred.

Since then, nuclear thermal propulsion has been revisited several times in conceptual mission studies and technology feasibility projects, including NASA’s Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project, which began in late September.