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

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

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

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

Scientists have known that the lunar surface contains helium-3 deposits since the Apollo program. The main advantage of helium-3 fusion over fusion with tritium and deuterium, isotopes of hydrogen, is that it does not create radioactive neutrons. Its main drawback is that it is much more difficult to achieve a controlled fusion reaction with helium-3 than using more conventional fuels.

According to NASA, China is preparing to mount the next phase of its lunar exploration program which will lead to a “research base” at the moon’s south pole. 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 ice located in the permanently shadowed craters to the south pole.
  • Chang’e 7, which will be a combination orbiter, lander, rover designed to prospect water at the lunar south pole. This mission may precede that of Chang’e 6.
  • Chang’e 8, supposedly designed to test technologies for the eventual construction of a lunar base.

China, possibly in partnership with Russia, is still planning crewed lunar landings 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 September 27, with October 2 as the backup launch date. With each launch, the mission will send an Orion spacecraft, loaded with instruments and other cargo, on a long journey around the moon, before plunging into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

Two robotic space missions, one by Intuitive Machines, the other by Astrobotic, are yet to launch by the end of this year or early next year. If successful, they will land probes on the lunar surface, proving the effectiveness of the Commercial Lunar Payload Systems (CLPS) program which pairs private companies with NASA to begin lunar exploration in earnest. More CLPS missions will take place in the years to come, although 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, including a Canadian, around the moon in 2024. Next year (or maybe the year after), Artemis 3 will land the first astronauts on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

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

Of course, the problem remains to make the helium-3 fusion technology work. Helium-3 fusion may not become a reality until the middle of this century due to the technological hurdles involved. However, certain changes in US space and energy policy could accelerate the advent of helium-3 fusion.

The United States is expected to begin testing mining operations on the moon’s surface, particularly the extraction of helium-3 from lunar soil. Then helium-3 could be transported to Earth and supplied to research labs so they can continue research and development of what promises to be a solution to both energy scarcity and climate change. climatic.

The country that controls the power source that keeps technological civilization going will control the Earth. If China becomes that country, given its human rights record and imperial foreign policy, history will take a dark turn. Therefore, the United States and the countries that signed the Artemis Accords must gain 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 maintenance of prosperity and human freedom on Earth.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of the space exploration studies “Why is it so difficult to return 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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