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

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-run news agency Xinhau as a “kind of colorless transparent columnar crystal.” The Chinese also claim that the new mineral contains helium-3, an isotope that many scientists have identified as a potential fuel for future fusion reactors.

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

Scientists have known that 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 does not create radioactive neutrons. Its main disadvantage is that achieving a controlled fusion reaction with helium-3 is far more difficult than using more conventional fuel.

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

  • Chang’e 6, which, like Chang’e 5, will be a test return mission, focusing on the Moon’s south pole. It will likely attempt to bring back ice that resides in the permanently shadowed craters of the South Pole.
  • Chang’e 7, which will be an orbiter, lander, rover combination designed to search for water at the Moon’s south pole. This mission may precede Chang’e 6.
  • Chang’e 8, said to be designed to test technologies for the eventual construction of a lunar base.

China, perhaps in cooperation with Russia, is still planning manned lunar landings sometime in the 2030s.

Meanwhile, 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 a backup date. Each time it launches, the mission will send an Orion spacecraft, packed with instruments and other cargo, on a long journey 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 early next year. If successful, they will land probes on the lunar surface, proving the effectiveness of the Commercial Lunar Payload Systems (CLPS) program that links private companies with NASA to begin lunar exploration in earnest. More CLPS missions will take place in the coming years, although the program is haunted by the bankruptcy of one of its 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. 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 .

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

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

The United States should begin testing mining on the lunar surface, particularly the extraction of helium-3 from lunar soil. Helium-3 can then be transported to Earth and delivered to research laboratories so that 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 energy source that keeps technological civilization going will control the Earth. If China becomes that country, given its human rights record and imperialist foreign policy, history will take a dark turn. Therefore, the United States and the countries that have signed the Artemis Agreement 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 continuation of prosperity and human freedom on Earth.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of the space exploration study “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 Curmudgeon’s Corner.

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