The main objective of the Second Moon Mission is to search for deposits of helium-3
The spectacular success of India’s maiden moon mission ‘The Chandrayaan-1’ has made the scientists of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) further ambitious; now they are quietly working on a mission no nation has undertaken ever.
The ISRO scientists have been planning to dispatch ‘Chandrayaan-2’ to the south side of the moon, not explored by any nation so far, to study the potential of mining a source of waste-free nuclear energy that could be worth trillions of dollars.
The primary objective of the second Moon Mission is to search for deposits of helium-3. Solar winds have bombarded the Moon with immense quantities of helium-3 as it is not protected by a magnetic field like Earth is.
Why helium-3? “It is thought that this isotope could provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor, since it is not radioactive and would not produce dangerous waste products,’’ the European Space Agency has said.
This isotope (helium-3) is limited on earth, yet so abundant on the moon that theoretically, it could meet global energy demands for 250 years if harnessed in a proper manner.
There are an estimated 1 million metric tonnes of helium-3 believed to be embedded in the moon. In reality, however, only about a quarter of that could be tapped and brought to earth, said Gerald Kulcinski, director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council.
Nevertheless, the quarter of the total helium-3 deposit is still enough to meet the world’s current energy demands for at least two, and possibly as many as five, centuries, Kulcinski said. Helium-3’s value, he estimated, at about $5 billion a tonne, which means 250,000 tonnes would be worth in the trillions of dollars.
“The countries which have the capacity to bring that source from the moon to earth will dictate the process; I don’t want to be just a part of them, I want to lead them,” ISRO chairman K Sivam was quoted as saying.
As for the record, India’s The Chandrayaan-1 craft, launched in October 2008, completed more than 3,400 orbits and ejected a probe that discovered for the first time molecules of water in the surface of the Moon.
NASA is slated to launch a rover in October next to explore virgin territory on the lunar surface and analyze crust samples for signs of water and helium-3. India does not want to lag behind either. The Chandrayaan-2 mission would solidify India’s place among the fleet of explorers racing to the moon, Mars and beyond for scientific, commercial or military gains.
At the moment, the governments of the US, China, India, Japan and Russia are competing with startups and billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson to launch satellites, robotic landers, astronauts and tourists into the cosmos.
The rover landing will naturally be one step in an envisioned series for ISRO that includes putting a space station in orbit and, potentially, an Indian crew on the moon. The government is yet to set a timeframe though.
“We are ready and waiting,’’ said Sivan, an aeronautics engineer who joined ISRO in 1982. “We’ve equipped ourselves to take on this particular program.’’
China is the only country to put a lander and rover on the moon this century with its Chang’e 3 mission in 2013. While China did not disclose much of its mission results, according to unconfirmed reports, the Chinese rover was believed to have discovered marks and traces on the surface of the moon that could be linked to the alien presence. It’s only but natural that China is keen to return later this year by sending a probe to the unexplored far side.
In the United States, President Donald Trump has signed a directive calling for astronauts to return to the moon, and NASA’s proposed $19 billion budget this fiscal year calls for launching a lunar orbiter by the early 2020s.
In sharp contrast, ISRO’s estimated budget is less than a tenth of that – about $1.7 billion; but accomplishing feats on a slender budget has been a hallmark of ISRO since the 1960s. The upcoming mission is likely to cost about $125 million or less than a quarter of Snap Inc. co-founder Evan Spiegel’s compensation last year, the highest for an executive of a publicly traded company, according to the Bloomberg Pay Index.
ISRO has packed a lot in the upcoming launch of Chandrayaan-2; it includes an orbiter, lander and a rectangular rover. The six-wheeled vehicle, powered by solar energy, will collect information for at least 14 days and cover an area with a 400-meter radius.
The rover will send images to the lander, and the lander will transmit those back to ISRO for analysis.
Interestingly, the presence of helium-3 was confirmed in moon samples collected during the Apollo missions, and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, a geologist who walked on the moon in December 1972, is an avid proponent of mining helium-3.
However, there are numerous obstacles that are to be overcome before the material can be used; this, of course, includes the logistics of collection and delivery back to Earth and building fusion power plants to convert the material into energy. Those costs would obviously be stratospheric!
“If that can be cracked, India should be a part of that effort,’’ said Lydia Powell, who runs the Centre for Resources Management at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. “If the cost makes sense, it will become a game-changer, no doubt about it.’’
Again there is another rider; it won’t be easy to mine the Moon. Only the U.S. and Luxembourg have passed legislation allowing commercial entities to hold onto what they have mined from space, said David Todd, head of space content at Northampton, England-based Seradata Ltd. The fact remains that there isn’t any international treaty on the issue.
“Eventually, it will be like fishing in the sea in international waters,’’ Todd said. “While a nation-state cannot hold international waters, the fish become the property of its fishermen once fished.’’
The Indian government is already careful about the influx of commercial firms in space by drafting legislation to regulate satellite launches, company registrations and liability, said GV Anand Bhushan, a Chennai-based partner at the Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. law firm. But it doesn’t cover moon mining.
What does India’s one and an only astronaut have to say about this? Is he on board with other nations for turning the moon into a place of business?
According to Rakesh Sharma, who spent almost eight days aboard a Russian spacecraft in 1984, nations and private enterprises instead should work together to develop human colonies elsewhere as Earth runs out of resources and faces potential catastrophes such as asteroid strikes.
“You can’t go to the moon and draw boundaries,’’ Sharma was quoted as saying. “I want India to show that we’re capable of utilizing space technology for the good of people.’’
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