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China reveals nuclear lunar rover

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China is planning to send a nuclear powered rover to the moon in 2012 on its first unmanned mission to our natural satellite.

Several technology institutes across the country are competing to develop the vehicle, although there is no word on when the official selection will be made. In what seems to be a bid to get the edge on their competitors, engineers at the Shanghai Institute demonstrated their prototype to the press this week.

The vehicle, as yet unnamed, will roll over the lunar surface on six wheels. Shanghai Daily reports that the rover is 1.5 metres tall and weighs in at 200kg. The paper adds that it should be able to transmit video in real time, dig, collect, and analyse soil samples, and produce 3D images of the lunar surface.

Shanghai Institute director Luo Jian says: "We want it to be better than the early US rovers," according to reports.

The rover will be able to roll at a top speed of 100 metres per hour, and will be equipped with sensors to stop it crashing into things.

Researchers say they still need to refine the rover's ability to withstand the rigours of the lunar environment: low gravity, extreme temperatures, and exposure to cosmic rays are all engineering challenges.

Although the notion of strapping nuclear material to a rocket and hoping it doesn't explode on its way to space sounds a bit risky, it isn't a new idea. The first nuclear powered satellite, Transit 4A, was launched in 1961 and until the Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA had been pushing hard to expand the use of nuclear power in space.

The space agency estimated that the chance of something going wrong on a nuclear satellite launch hovered at around one in 230. In the event of an explosion, people downwind of the launch site for up to 60 miles could be affected by nuclear material, the most serious risk from inhalation of "small quantities of radionuclides".

Once in space, away from handy plug-in chargers, the options for power are fairly limited. If solar won't do it, the only realistic alternative is a nuclear power source. Advocates argue that nuclear power in space is vital for long term exploration projects.

The idea of a nuclear stage for launch rockets was also considered seriously for a while. The numbers never quite stacked, however, and the idea was abandoned. ®

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