Soon after Russia claimed a vast portion of the Arctic sea floor last fall, accelerating an international race for the natural resources as global warming opens polar access, China 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
"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 announcements, 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.
Related Galaxy posts: