Reach for the moon
On 22 October 2008, Chandrayaan-I – India’s first scientific mission to moon – was launched into the orbit. It plans to put an unmanned spacecraft into an orbit around the moon to perform remote sensing for about two years.
“The primary objectives of the mission are to expand the scientific knowledge about the origin and evolution of moon, upgrade India’s technological capabilities and provide challenging opportunities to the young scientists working in planetary sciences”, says Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Yes, but is that all? Obviously not.
Moon, Earth’s only natural satellite, has always been in the spotlight for scientific explorations. Since the 50s and 60s, countries have been competing with each other to reach the moon first. But now, the race has taken a new shape. It has gone beyond the exploratory and scientific interests. Moon has become the dream destination for the possible immense economic and tactical benefits for us. Countries are now trying to find out what is there on the moon, and develop technologies to make use of the lunar resources. In other words, the aim is to colonise the Moon! The reasons are many…
Being our nearest neighbour and with one-sixth of our gravity, Moon offers a unique outpost for planetary exploration. A lunar base would also be an ideal laboratory to study the mysteries of the universe. Moon’s far side would provide an excellent site for establishing an astronomical observatory because of the absence of atmosphere and Earth’s reflected radiation.
Some parts of the Moon are in perpetual sunlight. This condition is ideal for harnessing solar power. The idea is that solar cells would collect sunlight and transmit the energy to microwave transmitters. These would beam the energy to Earth, where antennas on the ground would receive it. The only problem is making these solar cells and antennas on the Moon. Materials would be transported from Earth… at a huge cost though.
Moon has abundant resources of oxygen, hydrogen and other solar wind gases trapped in its regolith (the loose, fragmental material on its surface). These resources are important for understanding the mineralogy, lithology and regional geology of the satellite. But, the resource that has triggered off a race for lunar mineral wealth is Helium-3 (3He).
The Chandrayaan-1 mission is aimed at high-resolution remote sensing of the moon to:
Prepare a three-dimensional atlas of both near and far side of the moon.
Conduct chemical and mineralogical mapping of the entire lunar surface for distribution of mineral and chemical elements such as Magnesium, Aluminium, Silicon, Calcium, Iron and Titanium. And high atomic number elements such as Radon, Uranium and Thorium with high spatial resolution.
Lunar cash crop
Helium-3 is an isotope of the element Helium. Researchers and space enthusiasts consider it as the perfect fuel source – extremely potent and non-polluting. It can be used as a fusion element, with no radioactive by-product. Most people deem helium-3 as a better choice than first generation nuclear fuels like deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen), which are being tested on a large scale, worldwide.
In all respects, Helium-3 is an ideal replacement for fossil fuels. And it can meet all our future energy demands. But, Earth has only a meagre amount of this fuel. Thus, it is more valuable than gold, diamonds or even uranium! At today’s oil prices, it is worth more than US $ 4 billion a tonne! And Moon has plenty of this precious resource. It contains 10 times more energy in the form of Helium-3 than all the fossil fuels on the earth! The analyses of Apollo and Luna samples showed that there is over a million tonne of Helium-3, enough to power the world for thousands of years. (One and half tonne of Helium- 3 can light up India for a year.)
Chandrayaan-1 would confirm if and how much Helium-3 is there on the Moon. So, India has now joined the race for the ‘perfect fuel’, along with the United States of America, Russia, Japan, China and some European nations. However, the country has an advantage over the rest of the countries. How?
Once Chandrayaan-1 confirms Helium-3 stocks, India will have a larger claim on the lunar resources. The country will have a greater advantage under the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime, since it not only spent Rs 386 crore on the mission, but also came out with new findings on Helium-3. Sounds good? But, there is a looming question. What will happen to the natural environment of the Moon if we extract these resources… like Helium-3?
It is deposited on the lunar surface by solar winds and would have to be extracted from moon soil and rocks. The rocks would need to be heated above 800 degree Celsius, and about 200 million tonnes of lunar soil would produce just one tonne of Helium-3. So, won’t we run the risk of scalding our nearest extra-terrestrial neighbour?
Chandrayaan-1 would confirm if there is Helium-3 on the Moon. And mark the beginning of the race for the ‘perfect fuel’!