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?
Could Helium-3 Really Solve Earth’s Energy Problems? from io9.
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.
6 thoughts on “We Choose to Go to the Moon Again”
Very interesting post, JSP! I read R. J. Garan’s article that you linked to. We MUST go back. Space is humanity’s hope for a future. America’s turning its back on space exploration has been a terrible misjudgment in my opinion. I hope things turn around in my lifetime!
I agree. NASA’s current SLS program looks promising, so long as the funding doesn’t get cut yet again.
If scientists want to harness the energy of the sun and free the earth from its dependence on oil, then Helium 3 sounds like a really neat fix if they can get the economics right. With the right robotic technology, fingers crossed.
It’s a lot cheaper to send robots to space than us fragile humans, so that might help make helium-3 mining more economical.
I think the mass dismissal of the Moon as a training ground for Mars was misguided. Working out habitat and logistical issues there, with Earth only a few days away and interactive communication possible, still makes a lot of sense to me. Working out those same issues months of travel away and with delayed communication, strikes me as pointlessly risky.
Using the Moon as a testing and training ground makes a lot of sense to me too, even going into the distant future.
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