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.”
The Moon’s thin atmosphere contains neon, NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft has confirmed.
“The presence of neon in the exosphere of the moon has been a subject of speculation since the Apollo missions, but no credible detections were made,” said Mehdi Benna of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in a NASA press release. “We were very pleased to not only finally confirm its presence, but to show that it is relatively abundant.”
Because the Moon’s atmosphere is so tenuous, about 100 trillion times less dense than Earth’s atmosphere are sea level, the volume of neon is minute.
Most of the gases in the exosphere — primarily neon, argon, and helium — comes from the solar win, a stream of electrically conducting gas blown from the surface of the sun into space at about one million miles per hour. All of these elements impact the Moon, but only helium, neon and argon are volatile enough to return to space. A portion of the helium, argon, and neon in the lunar exosphere comes from naturally occurring radioactive potassium-40, thorium, and uranium found naturally in lunar rocks. more “Neon Found in Lunar Atmosphere”