Tag Archives: helium-3

Startup gets green light to travel to the moon and explore for resources

Moon Express, a startup company based in Cape Canaveral, will soon become the first company to travel to the Moon and explore its potential for resources.

Moon Express logo.

The US government has granted permission to the company to launch from the US and aim for the Moon. They already have a launch date goal for 2017, when they plan to send a rover to the moon’s surface and survey for the best locations to set up mining operations. They are particularly looking at mining iron ore, water, rare Earth minerals, metals, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and helium-3.

Naveen Jain, founder of Moon Express says he was inspired by Elon Musk and SpaceX. He says that his company’s mission is part of a larger vision to start spreading humanity’s wings outside the Earth. He believes that multi-planetary habitation is very important for the survival of the human race, and this is the first step towards that. He also says that space flight is becoming cheaper and cheaper. In an interview with CNBC, he says that in a few years, traveling to the Moon may cost as little as $10,000.

“In a mission that initially cost us to go to the moon about $25 billion, our mission to the moon next year is going to be $7 million, and the year after it’s going to go down to millions. And in the next ten years, the cost of going to the moon is going to be $10,000. And in fact, even the time to go to the moon … we’ll be able to go to the moon in 4 hours. That’s faster than going from New York to London,” Jain told CNBC.

In a more pragmatic view, the Moon may also provide some much-needed resources. The Earth is running out of exploitable Helium-3 but there is good reason to believe that the Moon has an abundance of helium-3, an isotope used in neutron detection, cryogenics, and medical lung imaging.

The legal framework for extracting minerals outside of Earth is still debatable. Yet in 2015, the US Congress passed a law that made extracting resources in space fair game and China is also actively seeking ways to mine the Moon. The race is on, and everyone wants a piece of the moonpie. But in the long run, Moon Express is eyeing an even bigger objective: Mars.

“Mars is absolutely the right place to be ultimately. But (the) moon is the first training ground and the first stepping stone. At the end of the day, we would rather me a lunatic three days away than be a Martian six months away,” Jain told CNBC. “So I really believe the problems living on the moon are similar – the high radiation, vast temperatture difference – and if we can solve that problem on the moon we can easily go on living on Mars after.”

China Reaches Moon Orbit, Wants to Mine Very Rare, Energy Dense Element

China’s has reached a new milestone in its space program – its latest spacecraft service module has entered orbit around the moon, after being successfully tested on Earth a few months ago. Chinese media reports that the service module of a test lunar orbiter has successfully began orbiting the Moon. The goal of this mission is to land on the Moon, retrieve four rock samples and return on Earth. But this is just the beginning – China has much greater plans.

If the mission is successful (and we have every reason to believe it will be), it will make China the third country to land on the Earth’s natural satellite, after the US and Russia.

“It was the first time for a Chinese spacecraft to reach the L2 point, and the service module completed three circles around the point, expanding probe missions,” vice director of China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), Zhao Wenbo says.

But while this is a laudable accomplishment in itself, China wants to eventually be able to mine the moon for a rare helium isotope which some scientists believe can be the key to future energy: Helium-3 (He-3). Helium-3  is a light, non-radioactive isotope of helium which is very rare on Earth, but can be found in relative abundance on the Moon. Materials on the Moon’s surface contain helium-3 at concentrations on the order of between 1.4  and 70 parts per billion, which may seem like very little, but it is enough for many people to propose the extraction of He-3 from the Moon.

The Moon’s He-3 inventory, in parts per billion. Image via Lunar Networks.

Helium 3 can clean fusion plants since the isotope is light and isn’t radioactive. This means that with it, we could develop renewable nuclear plants, which leave no radioactive byproduct behind. It would produce enormous quantities of energy with no negative “side effects”; just so you get an idea, 40 tons of Helium 3 (which can be fitted in two space shuttles) would be enough to power up the United States for one year!

However, in order to obtain those 40 tons, you’d need to process 6 billion tons of material! But China isn’t discouraged. Cosmochemist and geochemist Ouyang Ziyuan from the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is now in charge of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has already stated on many occasions that one of the main goals of the program would be the mining of helium-3. Russia has also expressed its interest in this idea, so it’s certainly an attractive possibility. Whether or not it can be done, and whether or not it is economically viable remains to be seen. For now, this remains an interesting, yet distant idea.

Edit: Because people have been asking – no, we don’t have the infrastructure to use Helium-3 even if we managed to bring it back to Earth. We would have to build everything from scratch, though many current technologies would certainly be useful.

Moon Express' lunar lander, depicted here as an artist's impression. (c) Moon Express inc.

Mining the moon: an entrepreneur’s vision

Moon Express' lunar lander, depicted here as an artist's impression. (c) Moon Express inc.

Moon Express' lunar lander, depicted here as an artist's impression. (c) Moon Express inc.

While the Earth is steadily being depleted of its natural resources, it might become imperative to look to the sky for alternatives. Studies so far alone has shown that the moon has twenty times more titanium and platinum than anywhere on Earth, along with helium 3, a rare isotope of helium, which is nonexistent on our planet, that many feel could be the future of energy on Earth and in space.

Even though it may seem that space exploration has been set up a huge step back after NASA retired its shuttle program, the future might be a highly bright one thanks to privatized space programs. Naveen Jain, co-founder and chairman of Moon Express, Inc., is one of the couple of billionaires today who share a common vision – the future of private space capitalization. Jain’s idea, in particular, is that of bringing lunar landers and mining platforms to the moon.

“People ask, why do we want to go back to the moon? Isn’t it just barren soil?” Jain said. “But the moon has never been explored from an entrepreneurial perspective.”

He actually sees a lot of opportunities with lunar exploration, besides mining.

“No one has ever captured people’s fascination with the moon,” he said. “What if, say, we take a picture of your family on the moon and project it back to you? Or take DNA up there?”

So far, this company Moon Express has already been awarded $10 million by NASA, part of the agency’s Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD) program, and is also shooting for the $30 million put into play by Google’s Lunar X Prize. Jain, a self-made billionaire, is confident that by 2013 his company will commence the first mining operations on the moon. So far, MoonEx’s lunar lander successfully completed a flight test at the Hover Test Facility in NASA’s Ames Research Center

“Perpetual ownership of private or government assets in space or on other bodies is a well defined, documented and practiced aspect of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty,” explained company CEO Bob Richards in a recent blog post.

You might think that mining on the moon would be a at least ten times more expensive than mining on Earth, no matter how precious that material might be, but according to MoonEx officials the difficult part is only setting-up an initial infrastructure. From the moon, ore or helium3, might be easily transported by putting it into orbit, where it would be collected and delivered on Earth using solar sails.

“We want to solve the problem of energy on Earth by using the moon as the eighth continent”

The Daedalus Project

Harvesting gas from Uranus might power interstellar flight

The Daedalus Project

Project Icarus is an extremely fascinating initiative which aims to bring humanity closer to the stars. The latest theory proposed by scientists there is related to the development of system which could allow the harvesting of helium-3 gas from Uranus to fuel a possible interstellar mission. Uranus, then, seems to be a very resourceful planet, considering scientists believe it’s covered in oceans of diamonds.

Helium-3 is a great fuel for fusion power, however it’s only found in extremely limited quantities here on Earth, but there’s more than plenty on the distant planet. In fact, the gas is so efficient that only 14,000 tons of it would be enough to power the entire planet for a year. Doesn’t seem such a crazy idea, anymore, right? Also, don’t mind the title of this post.

The mining process, scientists say, could be possible with the help of a robotic hot air balloon which could be filled with the gas and then float it back to Earth. The robot balloon would take 70 days to reach  Uranus, and  be able to take  500 tons of helium-3 at a time.

The Daedalus Project

Project Icarus is actually following in the foot steps of a previous interstellar innitiative from the 1970’s, Project Daedalus, whose purporse was to “design a credible interstellar probe that is a concept design for a potential mission in the coming centuries.”

Daedalus scientists managed to sketch the most complete interstellar probe concept to date, before it eventually got shut down – the probe would be used for a flyby mission to Barnard’s star 5.9 light years away. In the scientists’ plans, the 54,000 ton two-stage vehicle was powered by inertial confinement fusion using electron beams to compress the D/He3 fusion capsules to ignition. It would obtain an eventual cruise velocity of 36,000km/s or 12% of light speed from over 700kN of thrust, burning at a specific impulse of 1 million seconds, reaching its destination in approximately 50 years.

The mission’s main impediment was fuel, but helium-3, it could actually work. Scientists speculate, with today’s technology, an interstellar flight might be ready by 2100.

Exiting, pseudo-science, bull – what’s your take?