We’ve all heard of the arms race, the space race, and even the peace race.
But there’s one race that’s completely off the general public’s radar: who will be the first to mine Helium-3 in space in significant quantities in order to try to develop nuclear fusion reactors that do not create hazardous nuclear waste and other pollutants.
“Outer space holds virtually limitless amounts of energy and raw materials, from Helium-3 fuel on the Moon for clean fusion reactors to heavy metals and volatile gases from asteroids, which can be harvested for use on Earth and in space,” says former CIA space analyst Tim Chrisman.
“China will almost certainly use any resources it is able to acquire to the detriment of its adversaries, competitors and bystanders alike,” Chrisman told the Jerusalem Post, in an interview.
Chrisman also served in army intelligence and is a co-founder of Foundation for the Future, a scientific education and public works advocacy group dedicated to creating infrastructure to be able to live and work in space.
Beijing is charging forward toward potential revolutions in extracting energy in space and mining space materials and could leave the US behind, Chrisman said.
China has an upfront advantage because its military and economic components are virtually inseparable.
America faces a greater challenge rallying and uniting different aspects of national power to pursue a single challenging long-term mission.
“Getting there first may be more like launching the first satellite – like the Russia and US space races,” he said of the race for Helium-3.
“It would be a big political and diplomatic win. A lot depends on how that can be exploited on the back end, if it is able to be rapidly used for power and energy or brought back to Earth en masse reliably. It opens up possibilities for dramatic changes.”
Scientists say two fully-loaded Space Shuttle cargo bay’s worth of Helium-3 — about 40 tonnes worth of the gas — could power the United States for a year at the current rate of energy consumption.
Professor Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, recently said, the moon is “so rich” in Helium-3, that this could “solve humanity’s energy demand for around 10,000 years at least.”
Several major institutions in China are now studying rocks collected from the Moon by the Chang’e 5 mission for research that includes evaluating the material as a potential source of fusion power.
The mission delivered 3.82 lbs. (1.73 kilograms) of lunar material to Earth in December. A first batch of 31 samples, totaling 0.616 ounces (17.4764 grams), including fine grains, basalt fragments and glasses, were distributed to 13 Chinese institutions in July, Space.com reported.
“The main objective of the study is to determine the content of Helium-3 in the lunar soil, the extraction parameters of Helium-3, which indicates at what temperature we can extract the helium, and how Helium-3 gets attached to the lunar soil,” Huang Zhixin, a researcher in the Science and Technology Department of the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology, told CCTV in late August.
“We will conduct a systematic study on these aspects.”
Solar System Resources has signed a contract to provide 500 kilograms of Helium-3 mined from the Moon to the US Nuclear Corp. in the 2028-2032 timeframe, the report said.
Unlike Earth, which is protected by its magnetic field, the Moon has been bombarded with large quantities of Helium-3 by solar winds. That makes is as much as 100 times more abundant on the Moon than on Earth.
Fusion reactor technology itself has been stuck with various obstacles for decades, but some argue that a significant supply of Helium-3 could be the needed game-changer.
“An even larger potential game-changer could be space-based solar energy,” he added.
“This has more near-term potential – and even if it might be a less significant diplomatic win, it would be much more of a political punch in the gut to either country’s population. It would be not just signals from space, but wireless power available 24/7.
“It would be a solar power plant, a solar farm of solar panels put into space. Instead of the [limited] day and night cycle on the ground, you have constant sunlight delivering energy via a microwave or laser link to the ground.”
China is on track to launch a new megawatt scale space-based solar power station in around 2030, with key tests to take place in 2022, Chrisman said, adding that it has made expansion in space a true committed national mission and put significant funding behind it.
“This isn’t just about the Biden administration. It is throughout the whole political apparatus – there is almost a sense that it [commercial potential and job creation in space] is 100 years away,” whereas the former CIA analyst argued it is only a few years, or less than a decade, away.
Regarding other useful materials, geologists, as well as emerging companies, such as US-based Planetary Resources, a firm pioneering the space mining industry, believe asteroids are packed with iron ore, nickel and precious metals at much higher concentrations than those found on Earth, making up a market valued in the trillions.
The difficulty, Chrisman said, is that asteroids are smaller and are a harder target to land on. They are often spinning, they may not be shaped spherically and space programs may not be able to map what the surface looks like before a launch, hampering the safety of any spaceship, vehicle or astronaut.
The Trump Administration took an active interest in space, announcing that America would return astronauts to the moon by 2024 and creating the Space Force as the newest branch of the US military.
It also proposed global legal framework for mining on the moon, called the Artemis Accords, encouraging citizens to mine the Earth’s natural satellite and other celestial bodies with commercial purposes.
The directive classified outer space as a “legally and physically unique domain of human activity” instead of a “global commons,” paving the way for mining the moon without any sort of international treaty.
Spearheaded by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Artemis Accords were signed by Australia, Canada, England, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy and the United Emirates.
NASA plans to build a permanent moon-orbiting base called the Gateway, similar to the ISS. From there, the agency hopes to build a base on the lunar surface, where it can mine the resources required to fly the first astronauts to Mars.
China, which made history in 2019 by becoming the first country to land a probe on the far side of the Moon, chose a different approach. Since the Artemis Accords were first announced, Beijing has approached Russia to jointly build a lunar research base.
President Xi Jinping has also he made sure China planted its flag on the Moon, which happened in December 2020, more than 50 years after the US reached the lunar surface.
Sources: The Jerusalem Post, Space.com, Mining.com, I2M