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Monday, October 2, 2023

Viewpoint: China has returned helium-3 from the moon, opening door to future technology


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The Chinese Chang’e 5 mission has returned a new mineral from the lunar surface. Chinese scientists call the mineral “Changesite-(Y).” The mineral has been described by the state-operated news agency Xinhau as a “kind-of colorless transparent columnar crystal.” Also, the Chinese claim that the new mineral contains helium-3, an isotope that many scientists have touted as a potential fuel for future fusion reactors.

The crystal mineral was exceedingly tiny, about one-tenth the size of a human hair. The new mineral is of immense interest to lunar geologists. The helium-3 that it contains has the potential to change the world.

Scientists have known the lunar surface contains deposits of helium-3 since the Apollo program. The main advantage of helium-3 fusion over fusion using tritium and deuterium, isotopes of hydrogen, is that it doesn’t create radioactive neutrons. Its main disadvantage is that achieving a controlled fusion reaction with helium-3 is far more difficult than using more conventional fuels.

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According to NASA, China is preparing to mount the next phase of its lunar exploration program that will lead to a “research base” at the south pole of the moon. The planned missions include:

Chang’e 6, which, like Chang’e 5, will be a sample-return mission, focusing on the lunar south pole. It will likely attempt to bring back ice located in the permanently shadowed craters at the south pole.

Chang’e 7, which will be an orbiter, lander, rover combination designed to prospect for water at the lunar south pole. This mission may precede that of Chang’e 6.

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Chang’e 8, said to be designed to test technologies for the eventual construction of a lunar base.
China, perhaps in partnership with Russia, still plans crewed lunar landings sometime in the 2030s.

In the meantime, NASA’s twice delayed Artemis 1 mission has a new launch date. If all goes well, the mighty Space Launch System rocket will lift off on Sept. 27, with Oct. 2 as a backup launch date. Whenever it launches, the mission will send an Orion spaceship, packed full of instruments and other cargo, on a long voyage around the moon, before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

Two robotic space missions, one by Intuitive Machines, the other by Astrobotic, are still scheduled to launch by the end of the year or the beginning of next year. If successful, they will land probes on the lunar surface, proving the efficacy of the Commercial Lunar Payload Systems (CLPS) program that is pairing private companies with NASA to begin lunar exploration in earnest. More CLPS missions will take place in the following years, though the program is haunted by the bankruptcy of one of the participants, Masten Space Systems.

NASA still plans to send Artemis 2 and a crew of four astronauts, one of them from Canada, around the moon in 2024. The next year (or perhaps the year following), Artemis 3 will land the first astronauts on the lunar surface since the mission of Apollo 17 in 1972.

Many reasons exist for returning to the moon: science, commerce and the bragging rights that translate into soft political power. However, China’s return of helium-3 suggests that the moon could become the Persian Gulf of the mid to late 21st century. Clean and abundant fusion energy would change the world in ways that can barely be evaluated.

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Of course, the problem remains of getting the technology of helium-3 fusion working. Helium-3 fusion may not become a reality before the middle of this century because of the technological obstacles involved. Some changes in American space and energy policy might hasten the advent of helium-3 fusion, however.

The United States should start testing mining operations on the moon’s surface, particularly extracting helium-3 from lunar soil. Then helium-3 could be transported to Earth and provided to research laboratories so they can continue research and development of what promises to be a solution to both energy scarcity and climate change.

The country that controls the source of energy that keeps technological civilization running will control the Earth. If China becomes that country, considering its human rights record and imperial foreign policy, history will take a dark turn. Therefore, the United States and the countries that have signed the Artemis Accords must acquire control of lunar helium-3 and develop the technology to use it as a source of fusion energy. Thus, the Artemis program will ensure the continuance of prosperity and human freedom on the Earth.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.

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