back to article Chinese boffins suggest launching nuclear Neptune orbiter in 2030

Scientists at top universities in China propose sending a spacecraft powered by nuclear fission to orbit Neptune – the outermost planet in our solar system – in 2030. Astronomers have not yet been able to look at Uranus and Neptune in much detail. The best data collected so far comes from NASA's Voyager 2, the only spacecraft …

  1. Potemkine! Silver badge

    It would be great to get new data on Neptune and Triton, but will China shares them?

    1. NoneSuch Silver badge

      "It would be great to get new data on Neptune and Triton, but will China shares them?"

      The CCP will call it "The South China Planet" and begin emplacing howitzers to backup their traditional claim.

      1. Greg D

        I played that game in 1998 - but it was the CCCP and they were on Triton already.


    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      China's scientific missions generally do share data. It takes a bit longer than usual but most of the scientists involved understand the importance of sharing the data and a mission to Neptune has no real benefit to China apart from scientific research.

      Of course, the CCP could change priorities by then. And, if Xi is still in charge, it might be in for another bout of isolationist paranoia.

      1. Potemkine! Silver badge

        a mission to Neptune has no real benefit to China apart from scientific research.

        I'm not sure about that. If Triton has an ocean, it could become a valuable resource in a distant future. Generally, China sees things in the long term. Knowing where the resources are and the conditions to exploit them could be an advantage.

        "To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream.

        1. My-Handle

          I'm pretty sure that any ability to utilise a resource as remote as Triton is so far in the future, and at such an undefined point in the future, that planning for it now is effectively pointless. China would have more to gain by sharing such scientific knowledge than it would likely gain by trying to enforce a claim over something that is on the outer edge of the solar system. Remember, we've not even utilised resources on the Moon yet, and that's a mere hop away compared to Neptune and Triton

          1. Phil Kingston

            These are the voyages of the starship My-Handle. His 60-year mission: to stay on comfy known planets. To mull over the same life and frustrations. To boringly expire like no man has expired before!

            1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

              If resources are the aim then there are so many other sources easier to get to and exploit, ie. the asteroid belt.

            2. My-Handle

              If you like.

              I love to dream big, but I'm also a software developer and trained as an engineer. The job is to take those dreams and try to make them real. That requires a great deal of pragmatism, of understanding reality and what you can feasibly achieve, because nothing is built on dreams alone.

              That aside, perhaps you would like to argue the point and not the man? Why do you think it would benefit China to make a claim on Neptune and hold all knowledge about it to themselves, rather than share that knowledge and gain access to similar knowledge in return?

          2. Potemkine! Silver badge

            I'm pretty sure that any ability to utilise a resource as remote as Triton is so far in the future

            This is a Western mentality with only ROI in mind. All of our space programs have a (relatively) short term view, when the Chinese's one is well planned, structured and goes step by step.

            1. My-Handle

              The Chinese mentality that you describe is still one based on ROI. You are positing that it's just on a longer timescale, and is more strategic. I don't disagree there, I'm just not sold on the strategic advantage of the case being argued.

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                I think he was referring to the Western mentality of short, fast and wherever possible, large ROI in cash terms while the Chinese vision of ROI is longer, more measured and more about power and strength, not (or not just) cash.

                The reality is that neither position is hard and fast one or the other of course, but the balance towards fast is on the Western side while China is more on the slow and steady, increase power and prestige side.

          3. ian 22

            As Chou En-Lai (sp?) answered when asked if the French Revolution was successful, "It is too soon to know".

        2. DS999 Silver badge


          It isn't like water is scarce on other planets, despite past sci fi tropes to the contrary. Europa has many times the water Earth's oceans do, but what good is it? We aren't short of water here, and if we someday are desalinization is probably a trillion times less expensive than shipping water from a gas giant's moon.

          1. Ribfeast

            Re: Why?

            Water can be converted into rocket fuel, ie split it into hydrogen and oxygen, then burn it.

            1. DS999 Silver badge

              Re: Why?

              Taking water off the surface of a distant moon (where you'll have to drill through and/or melt ice) and then capture the feeble solar energy at that distance to split it, only makes sense if you are doing so to leave the gravity well of the body on which you found it.

              And again, it isn't scarce, so why would you lay claim to a moon because it has water on it? Probably most of them do, we just don't bother to look very closely at the little ones - but they would be more attractive for making rocket fuel for transit since they have a lower escape velocity than the big ones.

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: Why?

                If you want an offworld colony on a distant moon, planting it under a liquid water ocean gives many benefits such as having unlimited water on tap, radiation shielding, a fairly constant outside temperature needing little heating or cooling inside as compared to being on the surface.

            2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

              Re: Why?

              Why not do what's already been tested and use the Hall effect in deep space?

            3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: Why?

              "Water can be converted into rocket fuel"

              Or, positing an eventual breakthrough in portable fusion plants, used as reaction mass.

  2. John Robson Silver badge

    Launch in 2030...

    ... with a reactor due to be tested in 2030.

    Something's off there.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Launch in 2030...

      Not the same projects.

      The Chinese want to launch a probe in 2030, NASA wants a reactor on the Moon in 2030.

      1. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: Launch in 2030...

        So it's my reading that's off ;)

        I blame a head cold.

  3. elsergiovolador Silver badge


    - Son, the Chinese are going to space!

    - All of them? *excited*

    - No, just their orbiter

    - Oh.

  4. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Would I be being too cryptic if I suggested Chinese fire departments had better keep an eye on their water pumps?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yes. Next question...

    2. Dr. G. Freeman

      You're about 12 years too late

  5. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    This is a big mission ...

    Wouldn't it be fabulous if the Chinese and "the west" banged their heads together and had a joint mission?

    It would be great for science, great to help lift political clouds and save no end of money ...

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: This is a big mission ...

      It would be "but commmmmmmunism!"

      A quick look at the current world political situation suggests the problem isn't "the communists"

    2. elsergiovolador Silver badge

      Re: This is a big mission ...

      if the Chinese and "the west" banged their heads together

      We kind of have. Had we not bought the millions of containers of Chinese tat that we really don't need, they wouldn't have funds to go with such projects.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: This is a big mission ...

      China has refused to collaborate with the US & Russia in Space. Or anyone else. Take it up with them.

      1. Irony Deficient

        China has refused to collaborate with the US & Russia in Space.

        Actually, it is the US that has refused to collaborate with China — see the Wolf Amendment to the 2011 Department of Defense appropriations, which prohibits NASA funds to be used in collaboration with either the Chinese government or Chinese companies without prior congressional approval. This congressional veto is why the Chinese are not involved with the International Space Station. (There are limited instances of congressionally approved collaboration happening, though, e.g. in 2019 on the Chang'e 4 mission to the far side of the moon.)

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: This is a big mission ...

      "Wouldn't it be fabulous if the Chinese and "the west" banged their heads together and had a joint mission?"

      It would, but China has been sabre rattling for a quite a few years now, and no signs of stopping. Then there's tensions over the Russian v everyone else[*] affecting the politics of the ISS to give an example of "enemies" co-operating in space.

      [*} in terms of the countries involved with the ISS.

  6. AlgernonFlowers4


    Archchancellor Ridcully: Rincewind, these Agateans want to put a nuclear bomb round Uranus!

    Rincewind: Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!

    (With apologies to Sir Terry Pratchett)

    1. Evil Scot

      Re: Roundworld

      Who are you apologising to?

      The CEGB press officer of the Author?

  7. AndrueC Silver badge

    The challenges involved are considerable. The outer solar system is cold, dark, and cruel.

    I hear that there's no kind of atmosphere either.

    1. KittenHuffer Silver badge

      And I'm all alone .... more or less!

      1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

        Just need a couple of Skutters for maintenance and a toaster for company ...

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Would you like a toasted muffin?

  8. Zebo-the-Fat

    Don't go waking the Ice Giants up!

  9. Binraider Silver badge

    Political aspirations aside, this is an amazing mission proposal. Putting a fuelled fission reactor on top of a rocket is obviously not without ramifications...

    Assembling on orbit; perhaps sending the fuel independently of the reactor to keep weight of individual launches down might allow for contingency to be built into protecting the fuel in event of rocket failure (i.e. in event of failure of booster, can you bring the fuel rods back in controlled manner in a capsule).

    Be interesting to see how this proposal develops and/or what level of safety margin is adopted. It arguably also sets the scene for what level of risk one will be willing to take to step out into the rest of the solar system.

    1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

      The fission reactor bit is the problem for the West. CND and similar groups campaigned at great length to stop launches of radioactive material because of the risk of "the nuclear fallout of having an atom bomb exploding in the atmosphere" or "massive radioactive fallout caused if the rocket exploded". Despite both these scenarios being shown to be of minimal risk (the first being somewhat unlikely as, well, it isn't an atom bomb) space launches involving radioactive materials, in particular RTG or reactors, are still subject to massive "nuclear power, no thanks" campaigns.

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        No explosion, but the crash of Kosmos 954 caused serious radioactive contamination.

        1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

          True but the question in that case is whether it's sensible in the first place to launch a nuclear reactor into Earth orbit, knowing it will potentially deorbit without burning up? A mission which specifically aims to send any contamination away from the Earth (eg to an outer planet) is orders of magnitude safer that a low Earth orbit one and the launch trajectory (maximum likelihood of failure) is set to minimal risk (over the Pacific or whatever).

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Also, that was nearly 50 years ago, and technology has improved quite a bit since then, not to mention that "lessons were learned" :-)

  10. Wellyboot Silver badge

    Neptune eh?

    I'm all for space exploration, up to now we've had first a flyby then orbiters & landers heading to the planets,

    Many missions to Mars, Galileo mission to Jupiter, Cassini mission to Saturn, here we neatly skip past the next obvious planet due a detailed investigation.

    One day someone will give Uranus and it's moons the probing they deserve.

    1. KittenHuffer Silver badge

      Re: Neptune eh?

      Probing Uranus! Fnar fnar! Ooo errr missus!

      Or will this only happen after it has been renamed to Urectum?

      1. ravenviz Silver badge

        Re: Neptune eh?

        I think you’re thinking of “Bume Hollay”...

      2. Zarno

        Re: Neptune eh?

        Good news, there's now a suppository for that!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Neptune eh?

      It's probably to do with the way the planets line up, and which one you can get to more easily by doing slingshots around Jupiter and Saturn in a particular year. Starting in 2030 that happens to be Neptune (according to these calculations which I haven't checked). The Voyager Grand Tour took advantage of a lineup that doesn't happen very often.

  11. Inkey

    In 10 years time there should be a fission reactor on the moon ... if that becomes the case build it there ... launch it from the darkside

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      launch it from the darkside

      Which side is that?

      Or did you mean the "backside", assuming the bit facing earth is the "frontside"

      Mind you, if they decide to head for Uranus instead, launching from the backside of the Moon is probably a good idea.

  12. Anonymous Coward

    Misinformation alert

    Nukes in spaaace - As the article says, it's not just China, NASA is also planning to launch a uranium reactor. Plus, many probes have been launched from Earth with plutonium power generators and plutonium is a much bigger problem.

    Neptune vs Uranus - Uranus is next in line but Neptune has Triton which is speculated to be a captured dwarf planet due to its retrograde orbit. It also has the fastest winds in the solar system, massive storm systems, and a great dark spot which disappeared. Don't worry, eventually someone will probe Uranus.

    Chinese cooperation and openness - China has been very open with their data. Through the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) they have set up procedures to apply for international applications for experiments on their space station and lunar samples from the Chang'e-5 mission. They currently are flying satellites jointly with the ESA. Any lack of cooperation is driven by the US based on custom and then law. In 2007 they requested to participate in the ISS and even designed their manned capsules with an ISS compatible docking system. The ESA supported them but the US vetoed it.

  13. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Can't tell if this is a failed humour attempt or some kind of anti-nuke angle.

      Either way it doesn't matter if the Moon does get a few more holes. Nothing compared to what space has already done to it.

      And if some radioactive material were released, again it doesn't matter. Space is full of radiation anyway. Doubtful if there would be a detectable radiation increase.

      1. AndrueC Silver badge

        Typical of humans. Every time we get our hands on an environment we pollute it and risk making it unsuitable for life.

  14. Winkypop Silver badge

    “cold, dark, and cruel”

    Sounds like my most recent Chinese take away food delivery….

  15. Jan 0 Silver badge


    is an electrical kiloWatt somehow more ore less than a 1000 Watts of any other kind of energy?

  16. darklord


    Is it a good idea to stick essentially a bomb that far away which cant be managed properly or quickly. ok it goes bang the earth wont notice but is this really what we should be doing for the future.

    Just saying

  17. Muscleguy

    Hmm, by the time this gets there I will, if still alive be 74. Here’s to making it, should be interesting. Don’t delay too long please guys.

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