Ever since President Bush (what will I do when he goes?) announced that America was returning to the Moon and going for a manned Mars landing many space buffs have speculated that the real agenda behind the Moon mission is to start on setting up a Moon colony to mine for Helium-3.
Helium-3 is a key source of fuel for second and third generation nuclear fusion. First generation fusion is based on deuterium and tritium reactions whereas with second and third generation reactions we get,
D+He-3 > p (14.68Mev) + He-4 (3.76Mev) [second gen]
He-3+He-3 > 2p + He-4 (12.9 Mev) [third gen]
The problem with first generation nuclear fusion, from a proliferation perspective, is that the production of neutrons can be used to breed weapons grade fissile material. This is contrary to much hype about the proliferation consequences of fusion as a source of power. Notice also that should a new generation of nuclear weapons be developed in future that rely solely on fusion reactions without the employment of a fissile primary then the same applies to He-3 based nuclear fusion.
Helium 3 is rare on Earth (main source comes from nuclear weapons) but there is a fair amount on the Moon,
…In their 1988 paper, Kulcinski, et al. (see ref note below), estimate a total of 1,100,000 metric tonnes of He3 have been deposited by the solar wind in the lunar regolith. Since the regolith has been stirred up by collisions with meteorites, we'll probably find He3 down to depths of several meters.
The highest concentrations are in the lunar maria; about half the He3 is deposited in the 20% of the lunar surface covered by the maria.
To extract He3 from the lunar soil, we heat the dust to about 600 degrees C…
Now the energy that one can theoretically attain from that supply of He-3 is impressive,
…That 1 million metric tonnes of He3, reacted with deuterium, would generate about 20,000 terrawatt-years of thermal energy. The units alone are awesome: a terrawatt-year is one trillion (10 to 12th power) watt-years. To put this into perspective, one 100-watt light bulb will use 100 watt-years of energy in one year.
That's about 10 times the energy we could get from mining all the fossil fuels on Earth, without the smog and acid rain. If we torched all our uranium in liquid metal fast breeder reactors, we could generate about half this much energy, and have some interesting times storing the waste…
The Daily Telegraph has an article putting forth the Russian position on all this, which is fascinating.
…Mankind's second race for the moon took on a distinctly Cold War feel yesterday when the Russian space agency accused its old rival Nasa of rejecting a proposal for joint lunar exploration.
The claim comes amid suspicion in Moscow that the United States is seeking to deny Russia access to an isotope in abundance under the moon's surface that many believe could replace fossil fuels and even end the threat of global warming.
A new era of international co-operation in space supposedly dawned after the United States, Russia and other powers declared their intention to send humans to the moon for the first time since 1972.
But while Nasa has lobbied for support from Britain and the European Space Agency, Russia claims its offers have been rebuffed.
Yesterday Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia's Federal Space Agency Roscosmos, said: "We are ready to co-operate but for some reason the United States has announced that it will carry out the programme itself. Strange as it is, the United States is short of experts to implement the programme."
Nasa announced in December that it was planning to build an international base camp on one of the Moon's poles, permanently staffing it by 2024. Russia's space rocket manufacturer Energia revealed an even more ambitious programme last August, saying it would build a permanent Moon base by 2015.
While the Americans have either been coy or dismissive on the subject, Russia openly says the main purpose of its lunar programme is the industrial extraction of helium-3…
The Chinese have also waded into the matter,
… "Whoever conquers the moon first will be the first to benefit," said Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of China's lunar programme…
China is planning to send up a lunar orbiter in September.
The interesting thing is that this opens up the possibility of Total Recall (Ok, this Arnie flick was set on Mars but you get the deal) style Moon wars,
…But many officials in Moscow's space programme believe Washington's lunar agenda is driven by a desire to monopolise helium-3 mining. They allege that President Bush has moved helium-3 experts into key positions on Nasa's advisory council.
The plot, says Erik Galimov, an academic with the Russian Academy of Sciences, would "enable the US to establish its control of the energy market 20 years from now and put the rest of the world on its knees as hydrocarbons run out."…
If the world’s energy supply is to de dominated by Helium-3 fusion then it follows that whoever controls the Moon controls the Earth just like whoever controls the Middle East has critical leverage in international relations. Helium-3 would become a resource worth fighting for.
But, alas, let’s put this into some perspective. Firstly, He-3 mining may well be uneconomical,
…Indeed for now, the economics of extracting and transporting helium 3 from the moon are also problematic. Even if scientists solved the physics of helium 3 fusion, "it would be economically unfeasible,"asserted Jim Benson, chairman of Space Dev in Poway, California, which strives to be one of the first commercial space-exploration companies. "UnlessI'm mistaken, you'd have to strip-mine large surfaces of the moon."
While it's true that to produce roughly70 tons of helium 3, for example, a million tons of lunar soil would needto be heated to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius) to liberatethe gas, proponents say lunar strip mining is not the goal. "There's enough in the Mare Tranquillitatis alone to last for several hundred years," Schmitt said. The moon would be a stepping stone to other helium 3-rich sources, such as the atmospheres of Saturn and Uranus…
Secondly, nuclear fusion as a practical source of energy, even based on first generation fusion reactions, is a long way off. He-3 is even harder, but possible in principle.
But the interest in the Moon by Washington, Moscow and Beijing (perhaps also the EU) is very interesting and if He-3 fusion is driving the agenda then it certainly opens up the prospect of conflict on the Moon and creates a perverse logic behind moves to weaponise space. If the US achieves “space control” it would have the ability to deny Moscow and Beijing the use of near Earth orbit, let alone the Moon and other sources of energy in the Solar System.
If we are to take our quarrels into the Solar System then just what kind of a pathetic species are we?