As China invests in its space program, scientists have identified helium-3 (He-3), an ideal fuel for nuclear fusion reactors, as a major subject of interest.
According to CGTN, a Chinese English-language news source, Chinese scientists say the Earth possesses roughly 30 kilograms (about 66 pounds) of the helium isotope. Deposited by solar wind, the substance is abundant on the Moon’s surface — about a million metric tons. That’s enough to power the Earth for a thousand years.
Extracting He-3 from the lunar regolith does pose a challenge. The material would have to be heated to about 600 degrees Celsius before being extracted, packaged and transported back to Earth.
China’s Chang’e-5 lunar space mission, a 23-day operation launched Monday, aims to bring back regolith from the Moon.
“There seems to be another wave of interest of going to the moon, both by the United States and China and there may be other countries as well,” said University of Wisconsin engineering professor Gerald Kulcinski. “And most of these programs have, as part of their goal, harvesting helium-3 for terrestrial use.”
Long-term colonization of the Moon will require settlers to grow much of their own food, and they won’t have any soil rich in organic matter to start with. Hydroponics is one alternative. Growing plans in mineral-rich lunar regolith is another.
Dutch researchers with Wageningen University & Research have been testing a variety of vegetables to see how well they fare in regolith — tomatoes, rye, watercress, leeks, quinoa, peas, radish, spinach, arugula and chives.
The researchers couldn’t use real lunar regolith, but they created a substitute with similar chemical composition from volcanic ash near Flagstaff, Arizona. (To simulate Martian material, they found ash from Hawaii.) Regolith has only a small amount of reactive nitrogen, a critical element for life, and it can store only 30% as much water as organic Earth soil can.
The researchers set up trays containing the lunar regolith, Martian regolith and Earth soil, watered them each day, and studied the results over five months. Their findings, according to Smithsonianmagazine:
Radishes, cress and rye could be harvested and produce seeds.
Lava tubes are formed by lava flowing through a volcanic vent beneath a hardened surface. If the lava empties, it leaves behind a cave, typically in a long worm-like shape. These tubes have been spotted on Earth, on Mars and on the Moon. On Earth these structures range in diameter between 10 to 100 meters in diameter. Because there appears to be a strong correlation between gravity and tube-depth, Martian tubes are estimated to be 100 times wider, and lunar tubes 1,000 times wider.
In a new study, “Lava tubes on Earth, Moon and Mars: A review of their size and morphology revealed by comparative planetology,” a team of researchers from Italian universities has assembled a database of tubes and potential tubes. Typically, they leave long, sinuous channels that can be spotted on the surface. Sometimes, they leave cave openings.
“We measured the size and gathered the morphology of lunar and Martian collapse chains (collapsed lava tubes), using digital terrain models, which we obtained through satellite stereoscopic images and laser altimetry taken by interplanetary probes,” said Riccardo Pozzobon, as reported by Universe Today. “We then compared these data to topographic studies about similar collapse chains on the Earth’s surface and to laser scans of the inside of lava tubes in Lanzarote and the Galapagos. These data allowed us to establish a … relationship between collapse chains and subsurface cavities that are still intact.”
Many scientists have suggested that lava tubes on the Moon may make favorable spots for human habitation because they would be protected from cosmic and solar radiation and they would experience less temperature variability between long lunar days and nights. A major concern, however, is how stable the structures are. Many orbital photographs show collapsed tubes. The Italians believe they are most likely stable, thanks to low gravity on the Moon. Collapses are likely due to meteor impacts.
NASA is working on plans for robotic exploration of the tubes. The proposed “Moon Diver” mission would use a rover tethered to a lander to explore the tubes. Thelander would land near a skylight, then a tethered rover would climb its way down to the tube floor.
Scientists are increasingly confident that there is a significant amount of water on the Moon, but there is still uncertainty as to how much. Moon-orbiting satellites that rely upon ultraviolet, visible of near-infrared light to identify ice deposits can sense only a slice of the lunar surface measurable in a few millimeters.
“You really don’t know if it’s just a very thin frost or if it extends deeper,” says Kevin Cannon, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Central Florida, who has written a paper for non-academics, “Ice Prospecting: Your Guide to Getting Rich on the Moon.” Orbiting instruments that potentially could detect ice deposits beneath the surface — such as radar and neutron spectroscopy — have much much lower spatial resolutions.”
To get better data, NASA has begun planning a mission to send a rover to the Moon with mining instruments, hopefully by late 2023. The golf cart-sized rover will survey and map ice deposits in the lunar south pole. One of the instruments is a one-meter drill called TRIDENT (The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain), reports Air & Space. Building a drill capable of penetrating the Moon’s surface in subzero temperatures is fraught with challenges. Lunar regolith, highly impacted over billions of years of bombardments, is dense. Add ice, and the soil could be harder than concrete. more “Mining for Water on the Moon”
Looking for creative approaches to tap lunar resources to meet the needs of astronauts on the Moon, NASA has reached out to small businesses and nonprofit research institutes for ideas. Working through its small business programs, the agency has winnowed down 409 proposals for Phase 1 development.
Consistent with NASA’s goals for Project Artemis, the proposals are focused on extraction and processing of water ice from lunar regolith to create oxygen, drinking water and rocket fuel, according to Universe Today.
John B. Sheldon has coined the term “lunapolitics” to describe the extension of geopolitics, or the competition between national powers, into cislunar space. The U.S., China and other powers aspire to establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon to exploit lunar resources for economic benefit. Lunapolitics, he writes, will keep diplomats, executives, and strategists busy for decades to come.
In a SpaceNews.com op-ed, Sheldon offers 10 principles to to consider as Earth leaders create the political and economic framework for mankind’s future on the Moon.
Political and economic competition for the Moon is a positive. But competition needs rules of the road undergirded by widely accepted space law. “The alternative risks a zero-sum, overtly militarized scramble for the Moon that benefits no one over the long term. lunapolitics is essentially the management of this competition.”
Currently, the United States is the prime mover of lunapolitics. America is the only space power today capable of mustering the technology, financial resources and diplomatic will to establish the foundation for a lunapolitical framework. But it will be isolated if it disregards the interests of China, Russia, Europe, and other space-faring powers.
Lunapolitical power is predicated on geopolitical power. The conditions favoring countries to become space powers include space launch facilities that provide routine access to cislunar space, an educated workforce, a vibrant and developed business climate, and an advanced industrial/technological base. The United States and China likely will be the leading lunapolitical powers.
Lunapolitics have an economic dimension. A lunaeconomic agenda will require a deep understanding of the evolving political economy and business dynamics on the Moon. Narrow business interests should not dictate the strategic interests of lunar powers.
Freedom of passage is a core principle for a lunar economy. A lunapolitical architecture should ensure freedom of passage and navigation between the Earth and the Moon for any country or company capable of doing so.
Protect the lunar environment. Humanity’s poor environmental legacy on Earth should not be replicated on the Moon, the Solar System, or beyond.
Lunapolitical alliances will constantly evolve. Lunapolitical alliances will be transient, shifting with political and economic interests. A durable lunapolitical architecture should be able to withstand shifting interests and alliances.
Avoid excessive militarization of space. A lunapolitical architecture should advance a predominantly civil and economic agenda. Overt militarization by any country will undermine legitimacy and provoke adverse international reaction. The proper role of the military should be to ensure freedom of passage and navigation, search and rescue, and enforcing internationally accepted standards of conduct.
Lunapolitics is normal; lunapolitik is not. Unbounded, rapacious, zero-sum and overtly militarized “lunapolitik” is antithetical to other goals.
Lunapoalitics is a long game, not an election-cycle issue. Lunapolitics requires long-term, strategic thinking based on prudence and enlightened self-interest.
“The future is shapeable,” concludes Sheldon, “and it is our collective choice whether lunapolitics opens up new economic opportunities and scientific possibilities, or whether our future in space ends before it could even begin.”
China may not have been the first nation to land a human on the Moon, but it was the first to land a plant on Earth’s satellite and prompt it to germinate. The Chang’e 4 lunar lander held a small tank containing plant seeds. And now, a Chinese scientific team has announced, a cotton seed has sprouted.
Scientists aboard the International Space Station regularly tend plants to study had microgravity effects growth. But the closest terrestrial vegetation has come to the Moon was in 1981 when Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Rosa carried hundreds of tree seeds to orbit the Moon with him. Many were planted back on Earth, becoming “Moon Trees,” reports Space.com.
The Chinese lander also contains seeds to grow potatoes and Arabidopsis, a common lab plant, but neither have sprouted so far. The Chang’e 4 lander, perched inside Von Karman Crater on the far side of the Moon, is accompanied by the Yutu 2 rover. Both robots are experiencing their first long, cold night on the Oon. Daytime and nighttime each last about two Earth weeks.
SpaceVR, a San Francisco, Calif.-based virtual reality company, wants to bring solar-system exploration to Earth by using modified GroPro cameras to capture and convey immersive, 3D views from the Space Station. In time, the startup hopes to capture the entire astronaut experience, reports Space.com, from training to launch to spacewalks.Ultimately, the aspiration is to put VR cameras aboard missions to the Moon, asteroids, Mars, and Jupiter.
“We want to take space exploration where it was meant to go — the whole planet experiencing it together,” said SpaceVR co-founder and chief technical officer Isaac De Souza. “When people take their first steps on Mars, there should be a SpaceVR camera there to watch.”
As of Aug. 17, 2015, the company’s crowdfunding effort had raised about $38,000 out of $500,000 needed to put cameras on the space station and cover the first year of operations.