Humanity will return to the Moon… eventually. We have a long list of reasons to do so. The most commonly cited reason is, of course, the mining of helium-3.
In nuclear fusion reactions, helium-3 can be used as a carbon-free, radiation-free fuel. So that would be awesome for the environment. Nuclear fusion also promises to generate more usable energy by far than any other currently available technology, thus solving the world’s energy crisis.
Although helium-3 is rare on Earth, it’s relatively common on the Moon. Once we establish lunar mining facilities, we could send this fuel back to Earth or use it to power spacecraft for further exploration of the Solar System.
But is this really the best reason to return to the Moon?
How Difficult Will This Be?
While helium-3 is more common on the Moon than on Earth, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get. Lunar mining operations would have to sift through hundreds of metric tons of rock, heating that rock to temperatures in excess of 600 degrees Celsius, just to obtain a teeny-tiny sample of helium-3.
When you consider the total amount of energy needed to extract usable quantities of helium-3, combined with the cost of sending that helium-3 back to Earth, as well as the costs associated with shuttling astronauts and equipment to and from the Moon’s surface, you might find that you’re not getting much of a return on your investment.
Do We Really Need Helium-3?
At this time, nuclear fusion remains a promising but highly experimental technology. In theory, helium-3 is the idea fuel, but other fuels like hydrogen-2 could also work (although the fusion of hydrogen-2 nuclei would produce radiation in the form of free neutrons).
Since we can get hydrogen-2 right here on Earth, it may make more economic sense to use that instead.
The Future of Helium-3
In a more distant, Sci-Fi future, it’s a pretty safe bet that helium-3 will become a major energy source. Planetary economies will depend on it. Wars will be fought over it. Labor-class men and women will don spacesuit and go mining for it.
But I’m not convinced that this will be humanity’s top reason for returning to the Moon. Not when there are so many other, more achievable goals for our next Moon mission.
So what do you think will be the motivating factor when we finally do return to the Moon?
How Nuclear Fusion Reactors Work from How Stuff Works.
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Today’s post is part of Moon month for the 2015 Mission to the Solar System. Click here to learn more about this series.