mong the deep space exploration initiatives, exploration of Jupiter should be the focal point of China’s space program, said Xu Shijie, professor at the School of Astronautics, Beihang University, in an interview with newspaper Science and Technology Daily.
“In deciding on a major program, the State needs to consider three factors: scientific objectives, role in driving technological development and economic benefits or social benefits,” Xu said. “Exploration of Jupiter is significant in all three aspects.”
Jupiter offers a chance for China to start at the same line as other countries - the US, for example, has only launched two probes to the gas giant, he noted, adding it also will help in the search of extraterritorial life potentially existing on one of its satellites, Europa.
But to truly explore Jupiter, two technological hurdles should be surmounted. “Radiation shielding technologies are the difficulty in exploring Jupiter, especially Europa,” Xu said. The planet has a radiological belt 700,000 kilometers in radius, covering the satellite. Any probe that comes near Jupiter will be bombarded by its super-strong radiation.
After traveling a long way through the solar system and approaching Jupiter, probes can only get 1/25 of the solar power energy they can receive near Earth. So a better alternative is to use nuclear energy. “The most frequently used fuel is Plutonium-238, but its reserves in nature are too small,” Xu said.
The US is developing new substitute energy materials, as its stock of Plutonium-238 is decreasing. China, by comparison, will not run low on the fuel any time soon as it does not have many deep space exploration programs now. But it will run out sooner or later, Xu warned, suggesting it should start R&D now.
Chinese scientists have already put forward a proposal to explore the Jupiter system. It is hoped that it will be implemented when the timing is right, said the newspaper.