China is taking lunar mining seriously
China's plans to return to the moon early 2020s. Filling one shuttle's cargo bay with helium-3 could bring the equivalent energy of 1bn barrels of oil back to earth.
In 2009 NASA launched the first lunar mining competition called The Lunabotics Mining Competition (now simply called the Robotic Mining Competition) that aims to generate "innovative ideas and solutions, which could be applied to actual lunar excavation for NASA."
Google is also sponsoring a moon-related prize, the Lunar X-prize, a $40 million competition to encourage privately funded teams to launch "land a robot safely on the moon, move 500 meters on, above, or below the moon’s surface and send back HDTV Mooncasts for everyone to enjoy!"
Newt Gingrich, presidential aspirant in the 2012 Republican contest, wanted to see a permanent moon base established by the second term of his presidency that could be used for space tourism and mining ventures. Gingrich was widely mocked for his grand plan and former space executives criticized the policy, choosing to endorse Mitt Romney.
The moon is rich in rare earths, titanium and could support mining with recent evidence of the existence of water, the big prize when excavating the moon is helium-3.
Almost non-existent on earth, helium-3 is abundant and accessible on the moon and could be used in nuclear fusion, producing much more energy than fission reactions and with much less radioactive waste.
While the USA dabbles with the idea of lunar mining and both India and Russia have in the past floated ideas, China is the only power pushing ahead with an actual program.
Writing in The Diplomat Fabrizio Bozzato, a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at the Tamkang University in Taiwan, intriguingly argues China's program to land on the moon within a decade could be a game-changer:
It does, however, exist on the moon. Lacking an atmosphere, the moon has been bombarded for billions of years by solar winds carrying helium-3. As a result, the dust of the lunar surface is saturated with the gas. It has been calculated that there are about 1,100,000 metric tons of helium-3 on the lunar surface down to a depth of a few meters, and that about 40 tons of helium-3 – enough to fill the cargo bays of two space shuttles –could power the U.S. for a year at the current rate of energy consumption. Given the estimated potential energy of a ton of helium-3 (the equivalent of about 50 million barrels of crude oil), helium-3 fuelled fusion could significantly decrease the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, and increase mankind’s productivity by orders of magnitude.
However, supplying the planet with fusion power for centuries requires that we first return to the moon. At present, only China has this in mind, with its Chang’e program, a lunar exploration program that will send astronauts to the moon by the early 2020s. If Beijing wins the second “race for the moon,” and establishes a sustained human outpost conducting helium-3 mining operations, it would establish the same kind of monopoly that in the past created the fortunes of ventures like the East India Company. The ramifications would be significant, to say the least.
First, “China is what international relations scholars call a ‘revisionist power,’ seeking opportunities to assert its enhanced relative position in international affairs,” according to Foreign Policy. Establishing an automated or manned helium-3 operation on the moon would be a spectacular assertion. Second, with the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels on Earth, China would be in a position to gradually build a helium-3 empire in which it would control the supply of the lunar gas. The rise of such an empire would most likely be met with resistance. The prospect of China’s energy supremacy would probably lead to pervasive geopolitical influence, cause geopolitical tension and anti-Chinese alliances to coalesce, and prompt other countries – particularly the U.S. – to hasten to the moon to break the dragon’s monopoly.
Continue reading at The Diplomat