China Developing Nuclear-Powered Robot Lunar Rover

Scientists in Shanghai are developing a nuclear-powered lunar rover for the country's first unmanned mission to the moon in 2012, newspapers reported Monday.

The six-wheeled vehicle has been under development for four years at the Shanghai Aerospace System Engineering Institute, where a laboratory has been outfitted to replicate the lunar surface, the Shanghai Daily reported.

The 5-foot-high, 440-pound rover is designed to transmit video in real time, dig for and analyze soil samples, and produce three dimensional images of the lunar surface, the paper said.

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In photographs, the rover appeared similar to NASA's unmanned Spirit and Opportunity Mars explorers that were launched in 2003 and are still operating.

However, unlike the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used by those rovers, the Chinese model will eventually run on a nuclear power source to ensure a constant energy supply, the report said.

With an average speed of 328 feet per hour, it can negotiate inclines and has automatic sensors to prevent it from crashing into other objects, the report said.

Researchers were still refining its ability to handle low gravity, exposure to cosmic rays and temperature extremes, and plan to build an even more sophisticated laboratory to mimic those conditions, the newspaper said.

No figures were given for the cost of the rover program. A man who answered the phone at the institute's main number said it had a policy of not accepting media interviews.

China's sprawling military-linked space program that has sent two manned missions into space, with a third manned space mission scheduled for next year that will reportedly include the country's first spacewalk.

China plans to send an unmanned ship to orbit the moon this year, the first step in its three-stage lunar exploration project. An unmanned mission to land on the moon is next and a manned lunar voyage is planned for some time after 2017.