China Launches Second Moon Mission: Is Mining Rare Helium 3 an Ultimate Goal?

_49335520__49332045_010311835 On Friday China marked 61 years of communist rule with the launch of the Chang'e-2 lunar orbiter. The Chang'e-2, which is a part of country’s second lunar probe, blasted off from an isolated corner of Sichuan province just some seconds before 7 a. m. EDT. The launch will provide a boost to China’s ambition to emerge as a major space power capable of landing a man on the moon and perhaps one day exploring far beyond. The rocket will shoot the craft into the trans-lunar orbit, after which the satellite is expected to reach the Moon in about five days.

Chang'e-2 will be used to test key technologies and collect data for future landings. The latest launch, to test key technologies and gather data, is China's second lunar mission. China says it will send a rover on its next mission, and it also has ambitions to put humans on the surface of the lunar body at some future date.

The Xinhua News Agency said Chang'e-2 would circle just 15km (nine miles) above the rocky terrain in order to take photographs of possible landing locations. This is China's second lunar probe – the first was launched in 2007. The craft stayed in space for 16 months before being intentionally crashed on to the Moon's surface.

So far, only three countries have managed to independently send humans into space: China, Russia and the US.

In 2008, a Chinese astronaut, fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang, performed a spacewalk – the first in his country's history. He stayed outside the Shenzhou-7 capsule for 15 minutes; the exercise was seen as key to China's ambition to build an orbiting station in the near future.

Economic reasons are first and foremost of the forces driving Beijing's space endeavours, explains Dean Cheng, senior Asia analyst at think tank CNA in Washington DC. "From a civilian perspective, you are fostering the development of advanced technologies," he explains. Another driver is diplomacy A wide-ranging space programme shows the rest of the world that China had arrived on the international stage. There is also a domestic motivation: success in space helped legitimise China's regime in the eyes of its population.

In 2007, shortly after Russia claimed a vast portion of the Arctic sea floor, accelerating an international race for the natural resources as global warming opens polar access, China announced plans to map "every inch" of the surface of the Moon and exploit the vast quantities of Helium-3 thought to lie buried in lunar rocks as part of its ambitious space-exploration program.

Ouyang Ziyuan, head of the first phase of lunar exploration, was quoted on government-sanctioned news site describing plans to collect three dimensional images of the Moon for future mining of Helium 3: "There are altogether 15 tons of helium-3 on Earth, while on the Moon, the total amount of Helium-3 can reach one to five million tons."

"Helium-3 is considered as a long-term, stable, safe, clean and cheap material for human beings to get nuclear energy through controllable nuclear fusion experiments," Ziyuan added. "If we human beings can finally use such energy material to generate electricity, then China might need 10 tons of helium-3 every year and in the world, about 100 tons of helium-3 will be needed every year."

Helium 3 fusion energy – classic Buck Rogers propulsion system- may be the key to future space exploration and settlement, requiring less radioactive shielding, lightening the load. Scientists estimate there are about one million tons of helium 3 on the moon, enough to power the world for thousands of years. The equivalent of a single space shuttle load or roughly 25 tons could supply the entire United States' energy needs for a year.

Thermonuclear reactors capable of processing Helium-3 would have to be built, along with major transport system to get various equipment to the Moon to process huge amounts of lunar soil and get the minerals back to Earth.

With China's announcement, a new Moon-focused Space Race seems locked in place. China made its first steps in space just a few years ago, and is in the process of establishing a lunar base by 2024. Russia, the first to put a probe on the moon, plans to deploy a lunar base in 2015. A new, reusable spacecraft, called Kliper, has been earmarked for lunar flights, with the International Space Station being an essential galactic pit stop.

The harvesting of Helium-3 on the could start by 2025. Our lunar mining could be but a jumping off point for Helium 3 extraction from the atmospheres of our Solar System gas giants, Saturn and Jupiter.

UN Treaties in place state that the moon and its minerals are the common heritage of mankind,  so the quest to use Helium-3 as an energy source would likely demand joint international co-operation. Hopefully, exploitation of the moon's resources will be viewed as a solution for thw world, rather than an out-moded nation-state solution.

Casey Kazan via

"The Galaxy" in Your Inbox, Free, Daily