You don’t really hear about it in the U.S., but there is a moon race going on right now and it’s all centered around mining helium-3.
China is going to the moon. Japan has plans to. Russia claims it does as well. NASA—not so much, but a billionaire has joined the race.
Billionaire Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, gets a lot of press in the United States, partly due to a massive NASA contract, and partly because Musk has his sites set on colonizing Mars, which seems to be a far more popular topic than the moon is these days.
The moon seems to be old news with the American public, generating a sort of “been there, done that” attitude, which is perhaps why the not-so-secret international space race that is happening is not widely reported here in the United States.
But the moon isn’t old news for everyone, and it’s not Musk that’s going.
Moon Express joins the moon race
Naveen Jain, a controversial dot com entrepreneur, co-founded his latest company, Moon Express, with the goal of winning the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million competition to put a privately funded rover on the moon.
Moon Express’ ultimate goal goes beyond the prize, however. They’ve recently announced their plan to land the first of three rovers on the moon by 2017, with the goal of mining helium-3 and other precious resources from what they’ve coined the “eighth continent” of planet Earth.
The new moon race is all about mining helium-3
Helium-3 is a very rare isotope of helium here on Earth, valued at about $3 billion per ton. It’s value is because one space shuttle cargo bay’s worth of helium-3 could power the entire U.S. for a year.
It’s the future of clean energy, assuming we figure out how to achieve nuclear fusion—something that stars do naturally.
Currently, our nuclear energy is produced through nuclear fission, relying on uranium and plutonium and generating tons of hazardous radioactive waste. Helium-3 is non-radioactive, and nuclear fusion is a clean process that would result in no nuclear waste.
So, one can understand why there is so much sudden interest in mining helium-3 from the moon.
Why the moon has so much helium-3
Helium-3 is being blasted out into space by the sun all of the time. It doesn’t reach Earth because our atmosphere deflects it away from us. The moon however, has no real atmosphere, which means that helium-3 would have been accumulating in the lunar soil for billions of years. It’s just a matter of getting up there and bringing it back.
Mining helium-3 could also have other benefits that we haven’t even discovered yet. In fact, just a few weeks ago it was announced that scientists working at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York smashed helium-3 together with gold ions and actually created matter– the same stuff formed at the Big Bang.
Assuming Moon Express and China remain on schedule, 2017 will be a very interesting year as both will put landers on the moon. And with multiple private companies competing in Google’s open Lunar X competition, who knows who else might join. There could be a lot of traffic on the lunar surface very soon.
Sources: Moon Express, Jaxa Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Energia S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation