“As only the Moon’s South Pole can receive sunlight in most of its area throughout the year, we want to land at such a place where there might be abundant sunshine and possibly water to build a robotic research station to carry out relevant research using resources there,” said Wu Weiren, chief designer involved in China’s Chang’e lunar exploration program. “Nobody has ever landed there yet. So it will be the first landing if we make it. But there are some other countries that are preparing for that.”
In what will be a first for humanity, China is aiming to land at the Moon’s South Pole in order to establish a research station and investigate potential resources, a senior official with China’s lunar exploration program has said. The far side’s terrain is rugged, with a multitude of impact craters and relatively few flat lunar maria, including one of the largest craters in the Solar System, the South Pole–Aitken basin. With the first images appearing in 1959, it has never been explored.
Earlier reports from the Xinhua news agency hinted that China may be considering the construction of a pioneering radio telescope on the moons virgin far side, which will give it an unobstructed window on the cosmos that was confirmed June, 2016 when an agreement was announced between the Netherlands and China, that a Dutch-built radio antenna will travel to the Moon aboard the Chinese Chang’e 4 satellite and usher in a new era of radio astronomy allowing for the study of objects that might otherwise be invisible or hidden in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.
“Radio astronomers study the universe using radio waves, light coming from stars and planets, for example, which is not visible with the naked eye,” commented Heino Falke – a professor of Astroparticle Physics and Radio Astronomy at Radboud University. “We can receive almost all celestial radio wave frequencies here on Earth. We cannot detect radio waves below 30 MHz, however, as these are blocked by our atmosphere. It is these frequencies in particular that contain information about the early universe, which is why we want to measure them.”
The Chang’e-4 probe — named for the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology — will be launched to the moon in 2018, the official Xinhua news agency reported. “The Chang’e-4’s lander and rover will make a soft landing on the back side of the moon, and will carry out in-place and patrolling surveys,” according to the country’s lunar exploration chief Liu Jizhong.
Beijing views its military-run, multi-billion-dollar space program as a marker of its rising global stature and mounting technical expertise, as well as evidence of the ruling Communist Party’s success in transforming the once poverty-stricken nation. “The implementation of the Chang’e-4 mission has helped our country make the leap from following to leading in the field of lunar exploration,” Liu added.
In 2013, China landed a rover dubbed Yutu on the moon and the following year an unmanned probe completed its first return mission to the earth’s only natural satellite. Beijing has plans for a permanent orbiting station by 2020 and eventually to send a human to the moon.
Space flight is “an important manifestation of overall national strength”, Xinhua cited science official Qian Yan as saying, adding that every success had “greatly stimulated the public’s… pride in the achievements of the motherland’s development.”
Clive Neal, chair of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group affiliated with NASA, confirmed that the Chang’e-4 mission was unprecedented. “There has been no surface exploration of the far side,” he told AFP. It is “very different to the near side because of the biggest hole in the solar system — the South Pole-Aitken basin, shown above, which may have exposed mantle materials — and the thicker lunar crust”.
The basin is the largest known impact crater in the solar system, nearly 2,500 kilometers wide and 13 kilometers deep. Meanwhile, a ‘research station’ on the ‘peaks of eternal light’ at the Lunar South Pole would prevent anyone else from approaching.
A Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics senior astrophysicist, Martin Elvis, has sounded the alarm of how an unfriendly power – the Chinese for example – could seize control of an important piece of lunar real estate. They could do it legally by exploiting provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, that bars any nation — and by extension, corporation — from owning property on a celestial body, but a loophole in the pact may amount to the same thing, warns Elvis.
The real estate in question are the so-called “peaks of eternal light” around the permanently shadowed craters at the Lunar South Pole. Unlike the Earth, which is tilted so the poles are in six months of darkness and six months of light, the moon is almost perfectly aligned with its orbit around the sun. Because of the way the moon tilts, these peaks are bathed in sunlight for most if not all of the time, which means you can have an almost continuous power supply, ideal for a photovoltaic power station.
Thus this part of the moon would be perfect places to erect solar power stations that would support mining operations in the nearby craters, where water and other valuable resources such as Helium 3 have been deposited over billions of years.
Elvis said that provisions in the treaty allow nations to exploit resources, including through establishing research stations, and bar others from disrupting such endeavors. In some cases, this could amount to de facto ownership, Elvis said. As China and Japan plan moon landings, and corporate leaders eye their own space ventures, the loophole has gained in importance.
During the 40th Anniversary Commemoration Event for Apollo 17, moonwalker and NASA retired astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt said “one of the most significant contributions of the Apollo Missions was confirming the presence of Helium-3 on the moon.”
Helium-3 (He-3) is a light, non-radioactive isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. Its presence is rare on Earth, it is sought after for use in nuclear fusion research, and it is abundant in the moon’s soil by at least 13 parts per billion (ppb) by weight.
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 ChinaNews.com 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. The harvesting of Helium-3 on the could start by 2025.
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 the world, rather than an out-moded nation-state solution.
Planetary scientist Paul Spudis is one of many that notes that China’s space activities are entwined with its military, despite a growing focus on space science, scientific discovery and deep space exploration. Spudis has warned that China’s lunar ambitions are veiled attempts to gain ‘cislunar space control’, and advocates for the United States to renew its interest in the Moon.
Under the Trump administration and a newly-formed National Space Council, the United States has since stated its intention to return humans to the Moon, marking a shift from the Obama era roadmap for a ‘Journey to Mars’.
The Daily Galaxy via NASA, GHB Times, Beijing (AFP) and Xinhua News Agency, and the The Harvard Gazette.
Image credit: Peaks of Eternal Light with thanks to Monamour Natural Design
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