Harnessing the Moon’s resources to serve life on Earth is an idea like it’s been pulled from far-flung sci-fi works. However, in reality, the world has appeared such a race, between the leading powers, with the immediate goal of Helium-3 gas.
Huge source of energy
In a recent article titled “Helium-3: The Battle for Secrets in Space”, Asia Times has drawn attention when claiming that the world is currently in a quiet race between rich nations. the most powerful to become the first to be able to mine Helium-3 on the Moon. Helium-3, an isotope of Helium gas, why is it getting so much attention?
The answer is simple, this is the fuel for future power plants using fusion reactors. Currently, controlling fusion remains a major challenge that has not been overcome for decades. But in the future, when humans can completely control the fusion reaction, power plants using this energy will certainly be born in large numbers, and at the same time make the role of Helium-3 even more important. more important.
To make it easy to imagine, scientists estimate that just 2 space shuttles filled with Helium-3, or about 40 tons of this gas, flying from the Moon to Earth, people will be able to generate enough electricity to apply electricity. meet the needs of the United States within 1 year. Other benefits of mining Helium-3 from the Moon include no risk of toxic nuclear waste and other contaminants.
“Outer space has an almost inexhaustible source of raw energy and resources, from Helium-3 on the Moon for use in fusion reactors to heavy metals and other gases that come from meteorites, things that can absolutely be harvested for use on Earth and in space,” former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) space analyst Tim Chrisman told the Jerusalem Post.
Chrisman worked in military intelligence and co-founded the Foundation for the Future. This is an organization that promotes science education and public activities to create the infrastructure for humanity to live and work in space. It is not difficult to understand that Chrisman is concerned that the US will face fierce competition from China, a formidable opponent with scientific, technical and economic strength no less than the US.
Chrisman said that China is pushing to consider the possibility of extracting energy from space as well as finding resources in space. He assessed that China is holding the advantage, because once the goal is set, the country will not face many internal obstacles. On the other side, the US faces a bigger challenge in mobilizing and converging various resources at home in pursuit of its goal of extracting resources from the Moon, which is sure to last a very long time. However, according to Chrisman, this is an activity worthy of investment.
Exploiting lunar resources will be like a race to launch the first satellite into space before between the Soviet Union and the United States. It would be a major political and diplomatic victory. Then a lot will depend on how people will exploit the resource, whether it can be used immediately to produce energy or if there is a way to bring it back to Earth in large quantities, in a way that is worthwhile. reliable or not. Answering these will open up many opportunities to bring about big changes,” he said.
The game of the “big guys”
During the time when US President Donald Trump was in office, his administration showed a renewed interest in space exploration. Trump has said the US will send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024.
The Trump administration also proposed a global regulatory framework for the exploitation of lunar resources, called the Artemis Agreement, which would encourage people to exploit the resources of this celestial body, as well as other planets because commercial purposes. The Artemis Agreement is supported by the US Space Agency (NASA) and ratified by a number of countries including Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Japan, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Italy and the United Arab Emirates.
NASA also plans to build a base orbiting the Moon, like the International Space Station (ISS) below Earth, called Gateway. This station will act as a bridge for the Americans to build a base on the surface of the Moon and from there can exploit the necessary resources to launch the spacecraft to bring the first astronauts to. Mars.
China, which made history in 2019 by launching a probe into the dark side of the Moon, has chosen a different approach. After the US approved the Artemis Agreement, Beijing approached the Kremlin to plan to build a joint lunar base.
China also makes no secret of its desire to exploit the mineral resources of the Moon. Asia Times reported that Professor Ouyang Ziyuan, Chief Scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, recently claimed that the Moon is so rich in Helium-3 that it can help meet humanity’s energy needs. “for at least 10,000 years”.
Several major research facilities in China are now examining lunar rock samples collected after the Chang’e 5 mission to study the possibility of Helium-3 becoming the energy source of the future. Specifically, the Chang’e 5 mission brought 1.73 kg of lunar soil back to Earth in December. The first batch with 31 samples of soil and rock, weighing a total of 17,4764 grams, includes fine sand, soil and stone, which was then transferred to 13 research facilities in China in July.
“The main goal of the work is to determine the amount of Helium-3 in the lunar soil and factors that show under what temperature we can extract helium, and how Helium-3 has been extracted. clinging to the lunar soil,” Huang Zhixin, a researcher at the Department of Science and Technology at the Beijing Institute of Uranium Geology, told CCTV news site in late August. “We will do a qualitative study. system in these respects”.
The Americans, of course, refused to sit idly by and watch their opponents deploy their moves. On November 19, NASA and the Idaho National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy officially announced that they would accept the best ideas for building a power plant using a nuclear reactor on the Moon.
Any plans submitted to the two agencies should include a uranium-fuelled reactor, a system to convert nuclear energy into usable energy, and a heat management system to cool the reactor. reactor and a power distribution system, with a capacity of not less than 40 kilowatts of electricity operating continuously for 10 years in the environment of the Moon.
Some other requirements include the system being able to turn itself on or off without human intervention. The system must also be able to operate on a lunar lander. After a successful landing, it can be removed from the lander to be installed and operated at another location on the Moon.
In addition, when launched from Earth, the system must also fit into a cylinder with a diameter of 4m and a length of 6m. It also must not weigh more than 6 tons. The deadline to receive design ideas is February 19, 2022. “Providing a reliable, large-capacity power supply system on the Moon is the next big step in man’s quest to conquer this place, and it’s within our reach,” said Sebastian Corbisiero, one Researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory confidently told CNN.
Is there economic value?
In the “race” to exploit Helium-3, there are still doubts about whether humanity can really reap economic benefits. Sharing on Space.com, Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary and astronomical sciences at Birkbeck College, London, does not support the idea of mining Helium-3.
“The whole Helium-3 controversy doesn’t make any sense,” Crawford said. According to him, digging an area hundreds of square kilometers on the Moon can help bring back a lot of Helium-3. After all, however, this is only a finite source, not an infinite one. “Basically, it’s a fossil fuel reserve. Just like coal mining or oil extraction on Earth, when you mine forever, there will be a day when all that material will be forever gone.” Crawford said.
He also pointed out that the investments, as well as the infrastructure required to mine Helium-3 on the Moon – and thereby help solve the Earth’s energy problem as it is thought – are immeasurable. same big. He believes that spending money, as well as human effort and intelligence, on developing renewable energy sources on Earth will be a much better solution.
“I was amazed that, if the concern is energy, there are still much better options that people can invest in. So I became skeptical about the possibility of Helium-3 mining. But the thing is. This doesn’t mean I don’t think the Moon has much economic value in the long run,” he added.
Crawford also points to a problem with the amount of Helium-3 on the Moon. Current estimates of Helium-3 reserves are based on lunar soil samples brought back from the Apollo missions. But this soil sample was taken from the low-latitude region of the Moon.
“It is possible that Helium-3, and other ions carried by the solar wind such as hydrogen, are abundant in cold regions near the poles of the Moon. One would need a field measurement, using a lunar lander,” Crawford said.
According to him, the information gained from the mission could increase researchers’ understanding, not only of the reserves of Helium-3, but also of other materials carried by the solar wind such as Helium-4, Hydrogen , Carbon and Nitrogen. The most important task is to determine how much water is trapped in the craters of the Moon. Water can be split into oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel. According to Crawford, this should be the approach to mining the Moon’s minerals, instead of just focusing on Helium-3.
Crawford assessed that the resources of the Moon could be used to build an industrial infrastructure in the near-Earth space region. This is the view shared by many other researchers. “If resources on the Moon have value, those values won’t just lie on the surface,” says Crawford. But so far no one has built a model that shows future benefits to come. from exploiting the resources of the Moon,” Crawford said. “The problem is quite complicated. It’s not simple at all.”
It is a fact that humans have long been examining the geology of the Moon. Specifically, during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, astronaut and geologist Jack Schmitt tried to measure the mineral resources at this closest celestial body to Earth. Remote measurements of the Moon, using orbiting spacecraft, have also revealed similar information about the minerals here.
“But to fully understand the resources, we need measurements in the field, at the surface of the Moon’s poles,” assessed Crawford. , we can plan to exploit the Moon accordingly.”
A better understanding of how rare earths are on the Moon could also yield valuable information. “There is a possibility that when we probe for minerals on the Moon, we will find that this place has a high concentration of rare earths, materials that cannot be detected through remote observations,” Crawford said. He assessed that the Moon likely contains rare earth elements such as uranium and thorium, in addition to other useful substances that we may not yet know of their existence. To explore the Moon at the level of detail mentioned above will require a huge investment,” Crawford said. “But in the long run, we should keep a more open mind to this direction of possibility.”
According to space researcher Dennis Wingo, many metal-core meteorites have crashed into the Moon over the past long time. Determining the crash sites of these meteorites could make it easier to find mineral deposits rich in precious metals such as platinum, which have a high economic value.
If you’re only interested in minerals like platinum, you can fly straight to meteorites to mine them directly,” Crawford said. “On the other hand, if you go to the Moon to mine rare-earth materials… then the site of an asteroid impact can have side benefits. And when you add all these factors together, even Even without Helium-3 in it, you can see the Moon still has potential for long-term economic value.
Obviously, the Moon has abundant resources. But how will humanity explore, collect, dig, and use lunar minerals? “Exploring the Moon’s mineral resources should be done in the same way that humans are mining minerals on the ground,” said Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Mineral Resources No. time at the Colorado School of Mines.
Abbud-Madrid told Space.com that on Earth, as soon as a mineral source is discovered, people will drill or dig to exploit it. Minerals are also quickly pre-treated to ensure optimal use.
With the Moon, the search for minerals through telescopic observations and the identification of sources of materials such as oxygen and hydrogen for local use has been carried out,” said Abbud-Madrid. Based on the results obtained, the necessary technologies, as well as a prototype of the machinery used for mining, were developed and tested.
For example, the NASA Mineral Resources Quest (RPM) was designed to study the possibility of mining minerals on the Moon. Abbud-Madrid said that many private businesses are already planning similar activities. Such works will certainly lay a solid foundation for future exploration and mining activities on the Moon.
More importantly, when can mining the Moon’s resources happen? This is a question that we cannot answer in the near future. However, at least some parties have begun to take the first steps, although the direction is still unclear, but still shows a strong determination to put the huge resources of the Moon to service. for the needs of humanity on Earth.