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by Archives January 17, 2007

I once wrote that some people’s footprints are so large that we can see them from space. Well it seems that by the year 2020 we will be able to look up from earth and see footprints on the moon. In December 2006, NASA unveiled its mission statement to return to the moon and establish a permanent base there. NASA stated that the moon station is a starting point for its launch for a Mars mission, but in the meantime scientists are hoping to find an alternative energy source that might lessen our dependency on the earth’s fossil fuels.

Mining the moon for fuel in the nuclear fusion reactor of the future is among NASA’s 200 plus mission goals. The resource that has such large potential is an isotope called helium-3 (HE-3), a form of helium but with only one neutron instead of two.

It is rare on earth and can only be found during large nuclear reactions, most commonly found on the sun. On earth it can only be found as a minimum by-product of the maintenance of nuclear weapons, but the moon, unlike the earth, naturally absorbs the substance, and after 3.6 billions of years large amounts have accumulated. What makes it so attractive to scientists here on earth is that it could be an alternative future fuel source, as it is environmentally friendly and does not produce radioactive waste.

But there is a catch. Mining HE-3 from the moon is obviously unproven, and even if it is mined successfully, extracting energy from it will be difficult because the isotope relies on nuclear fusion, rather than fission used in today’s nuclear reactors. Fusion is considered to be some 50 years away.

But we can dream, can’t we? The potential is enormous. NASA estimates that about 25 tons of HE-3 is equal to just one payload of the space shuttle, and that could potentially provide enough energy for the U.S. for a year at current consumption rates.

“We are planning to build a permanent base on the moon by 2015 and by 2020 we can begin the industrial scale delivery of the rare isotope helium-3,” said Nikolai Sevastianov, head of the Russian space vehicle manufacturer Energia, speaking on CNN in December.

The timing may be unrealistic and his statement more for collecting publicity but the Automobile Manufacturers Association of America and some private energy companies have expressed their interests in moon exploration. China has committed itself to a space program to land men on the moon by 2017 and has also revealed that it has been considering mining the moon for some time now.

Research at the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin has also suggested that the process of mining HE-3 could produce other substances that could both support moon settlements and help to alleviate the demand for water and other food sources on earth. Nitrogen, methane, water, carbon-oxygen compounds and hydrogen produced from mining could also provide food growth on the moon to be transported back to earth for consumption.

“It is dubious whether it will ever be economically sane even if nuclear fission works or if helium-3 is a better resource than what is available on earth,” said Professor Manuel Grande of the University of Aberystwth, which is involved with the British European Space Agency’s Smart-1 mission to observe the moon. Speaking on CNN, Grande believes that focusing on mining self-sustaining minerals, whether on the moon, mars or here on earth, would be more beneficial than trying to harvest and then transport HE-3.

“There are plenty of other minerals on the moon that would be easier to get at,” he said. “Oxygen could be derived from ilmanite reserves there and also water could be extracted to make rocket fuel or sustain life on a moon base.”

Other considerations include the cost and waste by-product that would be left on the moon. NASA estimates that just to build the station by 2025 will cost $230 billion, and more to maintain it. That is why finding other lunar-based resources are critical to the mission. These resources must be able to supply water and food to people living on the station. The cost of transporting water and food from earth is considered astronomical.

Environmental groups are already suggesting that the moon might become polluted with waste by-product from mining and human garbage. “The moon serves as a protector for earth from various asteroids and most of the sun-storms- the same sun-storms that leave behind mega-deposits of helium-3,” said Geraldine Bensi of the California-based Environment Watch group. “To pollute the moon in the same manner we have polluted the earth means a sure end to life on earth.”

NASA plans to begin construction of the space station in 2009 and hopes to be mining HE-3 by the year 2025.

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