HELSINKI — A Chinese nuclear reactor for providing power and propulsion in outer space has passed a comprehensive performance evaluation, according to reports.

The reactor was designed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and can generate one megawatt of electricity for spacecraft power supply and propulsion.

The project passed a comprehensive performance evaluation by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology Aug. 25, according to Science and Technology Daily and other Chinese media. 

The online reports across multiple outlets have since been deleted but cached and archived versions are accessible.

No technical details nor plans for use of the nuclear power system were stated in the reports.

Nuclear fission systems offer high levels of power and electricity propulsion for robotic missions to the outer planets, which receive very low levels of energy from the sun, rendering solar power generation useless. They can also provide power on planetary surfaces for crewed missions. 

The project was initiated in 2019 as a national key research and development program and demonstrates a strong Chinese interest in developing nuclear power for use in space.

The South China Morning Post reported last year that a prototype design had been completed and some components had been built.

Senior Chinese space exploration official Wu Weiren, director of the newly-established Tiandu deep space exploration laboratory, in 2019 called for breakthroughs in nuclear power for space, to meet future mission requirements.

Chinese civilian mission proposals using a nuclear space reactor to provide power for propulsion include Voyager-like missions which would see a pair of spacecraft towards the nose and tail of the heliosphere and potentially a third perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic.

A Neptune orbiter mission concept using electric propulsion powered by a nuclear reactor has also been published.

China has been expanding its space transportation and deep space capabilities in recent years, successfully developing cryogenic rockets to facilitate lunar, Mars and space station projects. It is now working on reusable launchers, super heavy-lift rockets and a two-stage-to-orbit reusable spaceplane system

The U.S. is also moving ahead with nuclear powered spacecraft plans, with DARPA, NASA and the Department of Defense all working on concepts.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...