Moon rich in natural resources, experts say
With the landing of China’s lunar probe Chang’e-3 on the moon, experts have begun to calculate the wealth of resources that lies beneath the lunar surface.
“The Chang’e-3 probe’s successful soft landing and the operations of the lunar rover Yutu mark a new chapter in man’s exploration of the moon, a stride in China’s scientific and technological capabilities, and a concrete step toward the peaceful development of the moon,” said Wang Ya’nan, deputy editor-in-chief at Aerospace Knowledge magazine.
Wang said the moon has abundant mineral resources including titanium, silicon and aluminum.
“The most valuable is helium-3, an ideal fuel for future nuclear fusion power plants. There is an estimated 15 to 20 metric tons of helium- 3 on Earth to be exploited, but the reserve on the moon is at least 1 million metric tons,” he said.
Nuclear reactors fueled by helium-3 will be much cleaner and greener than today’s fission- based plants, which consume uranium, Wang said.
He cited a NASA report that a fusion power reactor using helium- 3 and deuterium, which can be extracted from seawater, will generate only a very small amount of radioactivity, equivalent to that produced by the radiological medicine departments of hospitals. Used in such a plant, helium-3 would produce so much energy that only 20 tons would be needed to supply all the electricity used in a large nation in a year.
Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s lunar probe program, had similar thoughts, saying helium- 3 is a very promising source of energy that could help the world shed its reliance on fossil fuels.
He said the Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 satellites had surveyed the moon’s helium- 3 reserves, concluding that there could be up to 5 million tons.
However, the technological difficulties in extracting such reserves and transporting the helium-3 back to Earth mean that progress will be slow, Wu added.
Another clean and effective source of power would involve the collection of solar energy on the moon’s surface for transfer to Earth, Wang said.
There is an estimated 15 to 20 metric tons of helium-3 on Earth to be exploited but the reserve on the moon is at least 1 million metric tons.” WANG YA’NAN DEPUTY EDITOR-IN-CHIEF AT AEROSPACE KNOWLEDGE MAGAZINE
The lack of air on the moon means that solar panels would be exposed to much more intense sunlight, unobstructed by the filtering effects of atmospheric gasses, cloud cover and other weather events, said Wang.
The absence of an atmospheric layer on the moon also makes it an ideal place to conduct space observation. Without the interference of man- made electromagnetic signals, lights and natural elements such as rain and clouds, lunar observatories could take clearer images and send signals further into space.
Meanwhile, the lack of an atmosphere means that observatories would not need adaptive optics, which are very expensive. He suggested that the environment on the moon is more stable than that on Earth, making savings in the cost of infrastructure and equipment possible.
An observer of China’s space programs at Beihang University in Beijing, who wished to be identified only as Wu, said the exploitation of helium-3 and the maintenance of observatories on the moon would require astronauts to remain there for long periods.
“Though it might sound surreal and like fiction, I think we will see the establishment of at least one lunar outpost in our lifetime,” the 30-something researcher said. “It is necessary if you want to mine resources or perform largescale experiments on the moon.”
In addition, there are benefits to establishing a launch center on the moon, Wu said.
“The gravity on the moon is about one-sixth of that on our planet, so if we can launch a rocket from the moon, it will fly much farther than one launched from Earth.”
Ouyang Ziyuan, a senior adviser to China’s lunar program, said the moon’s special environment will facilitate the development of new materials and biological products.
He said many technologies invented for space exploration have been adopted in civil sectors to improve the daily lives of people.
“A lot of things we are familiar with in our daily life, such as X-ray computed tomography and solar water heaters, were invented using space technologies,” he said.
Nearly 80 percent of materials China has developed since 1949 have primarily served the national space programs, said Pang Zhihao, a researcher at the China Academy of Space Technology.
Pang said new materials used on the Chang’e-3 probe are characterized by their lightness and resistance to extreme temperatures, and so have huge potential in civil sectors.
The advanced remote control and automated maneuver technologies that played key roles in the Chang’e- 3 mission will boost the development of unmanned aerial vehicle systems, according to Wang.