China’s Chang’e-5 mission has returned a new mineral from the lunar surface. Chinese scientists call this mineral “Changesite-(Y)”. The state-run Xinhua news agency described the mineral as “a colorless and transparent columnar crystal”. In addition, the Chinese claim the new mineral contains helium-3, an isotope touted by many scientists as a potential fuel for future fusion reactors.
This crystalline mineral is extremely tiny, about one-tenth the size of a human hair. This new mineral is of great interest to lunar geologists. The helium-3 it contains has the potential to change the world.
Since the Apollo program, scientists have known that the lunar surface contains helium-3 deposits. The main advantage of helium-3 fusion over fusion using tritium and deuterium (isotopes of hydrogen) is that it does not produce radioactive neutrons. Its main disadvantage is that it is much more difficult to achieve controlled fusion reactions with helium 3 than with more conventional fuels.
China is preparing to launch the next phase of its lunar exploration program, which will establish a “research base” at the moon’s south pole, according to NASA. Planned tasks include:
- Chang’e 6, like Chang’e 5, will be a sample return mission with a focus on the lunar south pole. It may try to bring back ice located in permanently shadowed craters in the South Pole.
- Chang’e 7, which will be an orbiter, lander, rover combo designed to explore for water at the lunar south pole. The mission may precede Chang’e-6.
- Chang’e 8, said to be designed to test the technology for eventually building a lunar base.
China, perhaps in partnership with Russia, still plans to land a man on the moon sometime in the 2030s.
Meanwhile, NASA’s twice-delayed Artemis 1 mission has a new launch date. If all goes well, the powerful Space Launch System rocket will lift off on September 2. 27, with October 2 as the backup start date. Whenever it launches, the mission will send an Orion spacecraft laden with instruments and other cargo on a long voyage around the moon before landing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.
Two robotic space missions, one by Intuitive Machines and the other by Astrobotic, are still scheduled to launch by the end of this year or early next year. If successful, they will land a probe on the lunar surface, proving the effectiveness of the Commercial Lunar Payload System (CLPS) program, which brings private companies to work with NASA to begin lunar exploration in earnest. More CLPS missions will follow in the next few years, although the program has been plagued by the bankruptcy of one of the participants, Masten Space Systems.
NASA still plans to send Artemis 2 and four astronauts, including one from Canada, to orbit the moon in 2024. Next year (or possibly the following year), Artemis 3 will be on the Apollo 17 mission since 1972.
There are many reasons for returning to the moon: science, business, and bragging that can be translated into soft political power. However, China’s helium-3 return suggests that the moon could become the Persian Gulf of the mid-to-late 21st century. Clean and abundant fusion energy will change the world in ways that are almost incalculable.
Of course, the question of making helium-3 fusion technology work remains. Because of the technical hurdles involved, helium trimerization may not become a reality until mid-century. However, some changes in U.S. space and energy policy could accelerate the emergence of helium-3 fusion.
The U.S. should begin testing mining operations on the lunar surface, specifically extracting helium-3 from lunar soil. Helium-3 can then be transported to Earth and made available to research labs so they can continue research and development on promising solutions to energy shortages and climate change.
The country that controls the energy 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 Agreement must gain control of the lunar helium-3 and develop the technology to use it as a fusion energy source. Thus, the Artemis Project will ensure the continuity of prosperity and human freedom on Earth.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of the space exploration study “Why Is Returning to the Moon So Difficult?” As well as “Moon, Mars and Beyond” and “Why Should America Go Back to the Moon?” he blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.