A daunting new mission to the Moon was launched Tuesday by the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA). Chang’e-1 blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre, Sichuan, atop a Long March 3A rocket -the first step in the Chinese ambition to land robotic explorers on the Moon before 2020.
Chang’e-1 has four year-long mission goals to accomplish. The
first is to make three-dimensional images of many lunar landforms and
outline maps of major lunar geological structures. This mapping will
include the first detailed images taken of some regions near the lunar
Chang’e-1 is also designed to analyze the abundance of up to 14 chemical elements and their distribution across the lunar surface. Thirdly it will measure the depth of the lunar soil and lastly it will explore the space weather between the Earth and the Moon.
To perform its science mission, Chang’e-1 carries a variety of instruments: a CCD stereo camera, a laser altimeter, an imaging interferometer, a gamma-ray/X-ray spectrometer, a microwave radiometer, a high-energy particle detector, and a solar wind particle detector.
Chang’e-1, named after the Chinese goddess of the Moon, represents the first phase in the Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme (CLEP). This programme is expected to last until around 2020 and the next phase will include a lander and associated rover. Looking farther into the future, plans are being drawn up for a sample return mission to bring lunar rocks to Earth for analysis.
Earlier this year, shortly after Russia claimed a vast portion of
the Arctic sea floor, accelerating an international race for the
natural resources as global warming opens polar access, China has
announced plans to map "every inch" of the surface of the Moon and
exploit the vast quantities of Helium-3 thought to lie buried in lunar
rocks as part of its ambitious space-exploration program.
Ouyang Ziyuan, head of the first phase of lunar exploration, was quoted on government-sanctioned news site ChinaNews.com describing plans to collect three dimensional images of the Moon for future mining of Helium 3: "There are altogether 15 tons of helium-3 on Earth, while on the Moon, the total amount of Helium-3 can reach one to five million tons."
"Helium-3 is considered as a long-term, stable, safe, clean and cheap material for human beings to get nuclear energy through controllable nuclear fusion experiments," Ziyuan added. "If we human beings can finally use such energy material to generate electricity, then China might need 10 tons of helium-3 every year and in the world, about 100 tons of helium-3 will be needed every year."
Helium 3 fusion energy - classic Buck Rogers propulsion system- may be the key to future space exploration and settlement, requiring less radioactive shielding, lightening the load. Scientists estimate there are about one million tons of helium 3 on the moon, enough to power the world for thousands of years. The equivalent of a single space shuttle load or roughly 25 tons could supply the entire United States' energy needs for a year.
Thermonuclear reactors capable of processing Helium-3 would have to be built, along with major transport system to get various equipment to the Moon to process huge amounts of lunar soil and get the minerals back to Earth.
With China's announcement, a new Moon-focused Space Race seems locked in place. China made its first steps in space just a few years ago, and is in the process of establishing a lunar base by 2024. NASA is currently working on a new space vehicle, Orion, which is destined to fly the U.S. astronauts to the moon in 13 years, to deploy a permanent base.
Russia, the first to put a probe on the moon, plans to deploy a lunar base in 2015. A new, reusable spacecraft, called Kliper, has been earmarked for lunar flights, with the International Space Station being an essential galactic pit stop.
The harvesting of Helium-3 on the could start by 2025. Our lunar mining could be but a jumping off point for Helium 3 extraction from the atmospheres of our Solar System gas giants, Saturn and Jupiter.
UN Treaties in place state that the moon and its minerals are the common heritage of mankind, so the quest to use Helium-3 as an energy source would likely demand joint international co-operation. Hopefully, exploitation of the moon's resources will be viewed as a solution for thw world, rather than an out-moded nation-state solution.
In October 2003, China became the third space-faring nation (after the U.S. and Russia) after it launched its first “Taikonaut” into orbit.
Europe and India are accelerating their efforts to conduct robotic science on space-born platforms. There’s also a growing interest in space exploration from a dozen other countries around the world, including Kenya, whose equatorial location on the east coast of Africa makes it geographically ideal for space launches.
While this emerging international community claims it's slice of the aerospace universe, the U.S., by contrast, is no longer a leader but simply a player, according to nationally renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who points out that "we’ve moved backward just by standing still."
Posted by Casey Kazan.
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