As is often the case, our media misses chunks of Chinese news. Sometimes they are the result of propaganda and must be considered in a wider political context, of course, but that does not mean that they should be ignored. For example, a statement made to state broadcaster CCTV by CCTV went unnoticed last week Wu Weiren, chief designer of the lunar exploration program. A real inauguration speech:
We are now developing a new system that uses nuclear energy to meet the long-term high-power energy demands of our lunar station
How to evaluate the statement?
Is it an attempt to respond to the USA, which a few days ago (finally) launched its most powerful rocket and opened its Artemis Mission, which plans to return to our satellite? The first step towards a lunar base, and towards the reassertion of supremacy in the space race.
Maybe. After all, China has only recently entered the "moon club" scene. And last January he was still negotiating with Russia to build one International Lunar Research Station. The program (whose talks date back to the previous year and evidently affected by the conflict in Ukraine) foresees the establishment of a lunar settlement, but not before 2040.
In recent months, however, the Celestial Empire seems to have decided to step on the accelerator. For this reason, he is now talking about a lunar settlement by 2028, well ahead of schedule.
Merit of nuclear power?
The continued, reliable and cost-effective use of nuclear energy for space exploration purposes is not unique to China. Even NASA for some time seriously think about this option. If US (or Chinese) scientists optimize the processes involving this technology, they will also be able to generate oxygen and water directly from a settlement on the lunar surface.
China does not unbutton on this matter, but one thing he has stated several times: is developing a nuclear reactor for missions to the Moon and beyond, and has been doing so since 2019 under a government program. Last year, the research team has announced at South China Morning Post that you have already completed the engineering design of the prototype. He would be able to produce one megawatt of electricity. It would be 100 times more powerful than the corresponding NASA project announced in 2021 and scheduled for 2030. And that's not the only "competitive" thing in the whole story.
Chinese lunar settlement: what it would look like
The basic configuration of the Chinese lunar settlement will include a rover (always powered by nuclear energy), a sort of hopper, an orbiter and a lander. The rover is expected to be larger than the two rovers China has already developed. Nuclear power, Wu says, could also be used to power the hopper, the machine meant to move materials in and out of a lunar crater in search of water.
Nuclear power will support the station's communications facilities to maintain communication with Earth and power the station's communications systems. The settlement will also remain connected to Earth and transmit signals between Earth, Mars and deep space.
“China was the first country to propose building a research facility at the lunar South Pole,” Wu says.
At about 89 degrees south latitude, there could be 180 consecutive days of daylight to sustain sustained operations, for both instruments and astronauts.
The roadmap towards settlement
Wu said the Chang'e 6, 7 and 8 missions will build the settlement's backbone, and a team of astronauts will complete its construction shortly thereafter. Subsequently, the station will be transformed into a global scientific research facility where astronauts from China, Russia and other potential partner nations occasionally work.
So, as said: is it propaganda or not? China is racing full steam ahead down this road. Soon the Chinese "ISS" will also be operational, and this will make the Asian country the first to have its own independent space presence.
There are challenges ahead, though: the upcoming Chang'e 6, 7, and 8 missions require a lot more effort. And here comes some admission: "We need to quadruple the thrust power of our rockets to support manned landings on the Moon, and mass transport between the ground and near-Earth space," says Wu.
Here: if I were him, with Artemis just taken off and the new American moon landing expected in 2025, I'd talk about ballistics before a possible settlement.