Image Courtesy of the Shanghai Daily
China is working on an atomic-powered rover for the nation's first unmanned mission to the moon

The Chinese space program hopes to use an atomic-powered lunar rover when the nation launches its first unmanned mission to the moon in 2012. The Shanghai Aerospace System Engineering Institute has been working on the six-wheeled, atomic-powered vehicle for four years, going as far as testing the rover in a laboratory that simulates the lunar surface.  The lunar rover was debuted in Shanghai during a China-UK Workshop on Space Science and Technology several days ago.

Researchers hope the 5-foot high, 440-pound rover is able to transmit video feeds back to Earth, along with digging and collecting soil samples, and producing accurate three dimensional images of the moon's surface.  The rover will be able to travel up to 328 feet per hour while climbing slopes and overcoming barriers.

The Chinese rover appears to be very similar to Spirit and Opportunity, NASA's unmanned rovers currently exploring Mars.  However, the Spirit and Opportunity are currently operated on rechargeable lithium ion batteries, the Chinese rover will be nuclear powered.  

"We want to make it better than the early US and Russian rovers," said Luo Jian, Shanghai Aerospace System Engineering Institute director.

Researchers are still working on fine tuning the rover's ability to handle the type of environment it will have to handle on the moon -- low gravity, temperature extremes and cosmic rays included.

China has ambitious plans for the country's space exploration program -- a deal between China and Russia to jointly study Mars was announced last week.  NASA also admitted that it is likely China will reach the moon before the U.S. returns.

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