Russia plans to put a nuclear reactor on the Moon – with China's help

Roscosmos has had a few problems landing on the lunar surface recently

Roscosmos and China are considering putting a nuclear reactor on the Moon, according to the Russian space agency's boss.

Moscow mouthpiece Tass states the mission would be automated and have a 2033-2035 time frame.

Roscosmos boss Yury Borisov claimed the technology necessary for the mission was almost ready and told the World Youth Festival (held in Russia): "Today, we are seriously considering a project to deliver to the Moon and mount a power reactor there jointly with our Chinese partners."

NASA has also awarded design contracts for nuclear power on the Moon.

Russia has not had the best of luck in modern times when it comes to missions to the Moon. In 2023, its Luna 25 lander smeared itself over the lunar surface following a botched orbital burn. The misery of Roscosmos engineers was compounded when India's Chandrayaan-3 mission landed successfully mere days later.

While Roscosmos talked up its plans for a nuclear reactor on the Moon, China has continued progressing toward reusable rockets. In an interview published by China News, Wang Wei of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation said that 4-meter-class and 5-meter-class reusable rockets were scheduled to fly for the first time in 2025 and 2026 respectively.

SpaceX has demonstrated the effectiveness of reusable rockets, and its rivals have since been scrambling to catch up. Blue Origin's New Glenn first stage is designed to be reusable, and United Launch Alliance's proposed SMART system would make the first stage engines of the company's Vulcan rocket recoverable.

Governmental and commercial entities have since attempted the feat with varying levels of success. However, China's Chang'e probes have worked well, with the most recent – Chang'e 5 – successfully landing on the Moon and sending a sample of lunar soil back to Earth.

Chang'e 6, another sample return mission, is due to launch in the first half of 2024. It will be followed by a resource prospector in 2026 and Chang'e 8 in 2028. Chang'e 8 is expected to be a precursor to the construction of a lunar base.

So Borisov's timing could work. And it isn't as though the Russians haven't put radioactive power sources on the Moon before – the Lunokhod rover had a Polonium-210 isotopic heat source to keep the electronics warm during the lunar night. Not quite a nuclear reactor, of course.

However Russia has long since lost the ability to land something on the Moon, let alone go trundling, as demonstrated by the Luna 25 mishap.

A bigger question is whether China really needs or even wants Russian involvement in its lunar program. The two signed off on International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) plans in 2021, but the Luna 25 incident will likely have given Russia's partners pause for thought. ILRS calls for "long-term unmanned operation with the prospect of subsequent human presence." ®

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