As we head into the new year, Energy Digital will be posting some of best stories from 2011 all week. Happy Holidays to all of our readers!
Most people are unaware that our Moon holds countless resources. Some are familiar: titanium, platinum, silicon, ammonia, mercury, and even water (yes, H20 has been confirmed to be present on the moon). But a more elusive substance, which is a rarity here on Earth, is also found on the Moon: helium-3.
Helium-3 is a non-radioactive hydrogen isotope with one neutron and two protons. It is carried through space via the Sun’s solar winds, but burns up as it enters Earth’s atmosphere, making it almost non-existent here on our planet. However, an abundance of helium-3 has built up on the Moon’s surface over the millennia as confirmed in soil samples collected by the Apollo 17 lunar mission, and it is just waiting to be mined. Why you ask? Because, helium-3 can fuel non-radioactive nuclear fusion reactions to produce safe, clean, abundant energy, and can completely transform our energy future.
Helium-3 nuclear fusion reactions release non-radioactive protons that can be harnessed to create electricity directly. This type of nuclear fusion is safer and far more efficient than the nuclear fission reactions used in nuclear plants today, which use heat to run steam turbines, losing energy in the conversion process and creating radioactive waste as a byproduct.
Projections estimate that on a commercial basis helium-3 would be worth around $40,000 per ounce. Roughly 100 tons of Helium-3 could power the entire population of Earth for a year and scientists estimate that the Moon could contain approximately 1 million tons—10,000 years worth of energy. But is mining the Moon realistic, and who would spearhead such a risky endeavor?
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Google announced the “Google Lunar X PRIZE” competition in 2007, in which the Internet giant challenged privately funded spaceflight teams from across the globe to send a robot to the moon’s surface. The first successful team will win $30 million in prizes. As of February 2011, 29 teams from various nations are officially competing for the prize, and several will be launching within the next two years.
The US state of Florida is also offering a $2 million prize to the first private spaceflight launched from its soil. NASA is even willing to pay $10 million or more for data collected from private lunar missions.
Caterpillar—a top name in mining machinery and equipment—has invested in Carnegie Mellon University’s Astrobotic Technology, a company vying for the Google Lunar X PRIZE. Already having experience in automated machinery, Caterpillar will use the partnership withAstrobotic to propel its own lunar program. Caterpillar Automation Systems Manager EricReiners says,“Caterpillar makes sustainable progress possible by enabling infrastructure development and resource utilization on every continent on Earth. It only makes sense we would be involved in expanding our efforts to the 8th continent: the Moon.”
Richard Branson—the man, the myth, the legend—has started up Virgin Galactic. With his own private fleet of spaceships and a spaceport in New Mexico (USA), Branson is already booking spaceflights for those who can afford the $200,000 ticket price. Initial flights will be sub-orbital, with the goal of eventually setting up a lunar resort, in which the elite can take a vacation to the Moon. While no official statements have confirmed Branson’s intentions to mine the Moon, media contacts from Virgin Galactic have hinted that it is not out of the realm of possibility.
The governments of Russia, China and India have all made public comments on exploiting the Moon’s resources, and the Russian space company RSC Energia has proposed a permanent lunar base to be completed by 2025 as a hub for helium-3 mining operations. According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, Moon mining does not seem to violate any international agreements. However, there is debate over who would own the rights to the materials mined.
Mining the Moon would, in fact, create an entirely new industry completely with a radically different kind of supply chain. Shackleton Energy Co., a subsidiary of Stone Aerospace, is planning on developing orbital rocket fueling stations by 2020, so spaceships will be able to fill up on their way to the Moon and back.
There is a dark side, however, to mining the Moon. Let us not forget that the Moon’s orbit dictates the ebb and flow of various systems here on Earth. From sea tides to weather patterns, animal mating habits to plant growth, even plate tectonics, a number of the Earth’s systems are reliant on the Moon’s consistent circumnavigation of the planet to function properly. If we remove millions of tons of helium-3 and other minerals from the moon and bring them to Earth, the celestial balance that drives those patterns may be thrown off. What’s worse, mining activities tend to use explosives, and in low gravity, who’s to say that we may not fracture the moon entirely, hurling giant lunar meteorites toward Earth? Transforming the Moon into a mining hub is certainly risky business, but it’s bound to be a profitable reality very soon!