Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Race To The Moon

I have been following this story for quite some time, so I think it is ripe for comment.

Asia Times reports on this new race to the moon.

MUMBAI - With the Chinese and Japanese making plans to establish moon bases, can India be far behind?

"Global players have declared that by 2020, they will have their bases on the moon," Madhavan Nair, chief of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), declared on August 18. "I don't think India can afford to be lagging behind in that."

Nair said ISRO is defining technologies needed for India's first manned space mission in an Indian space vehicle scheduled for 2015 (Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma spent eight days aboard a Soviet Soyuz T-11 in 1984). Fifty-nine of 122 lunar probes launched worldwide were successful. More are heading moonward in a renewed interest in Earth's neighbor 385,000 kilometers away.

Leading Asia's moon ambitions is the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which rescheduled its lunar orbiter, Kaguya, to September 13 instead of this month. On August 17, China insisted its lunar Chang'e I program is purely scientific and not competing with any other country (read Japan).

India is expected to invest US$1.5 billion over the next five years to develop technologies for a manned space flight by 2015 and a moon flight by 2020. Most of the designing, research and technical jobs are to be completed by 2012.

The United States wants a permanent outpost on the moon. This month, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released a master list of potential lunar objectives, consulting more than 1,000 people from businesses, and it included developing lunar commerce.

Scientists say moon resources could support life on Earth with cheaper and cleaner energy and help human exploration of the solar system and outer space with cheaper rocket fuel and space-travel construction materials. Lunar mineral deposits include aluminum, magnesium, titanium, iron (for building moon structures), and silicon (to make solar cells for energy), besides the lunar soil enriched with oxygen (for astronauts to breathe and for making rocket fuel) and hydrogen; the soil could also be melted into casts and used as construction blocks.
Now the big prize not mentioned in the article is Helium 3 which is an excellent fusion fuel. It is very scarce on Earth but relatively abundant on the moon.

Some people think that the race to the moon is basically a race for fusion fuels.
...today's moon race, unlike the one that took place between the United States and the U.S.S.R. in the 1960s, a full roster of 21st-century global powers, including China and India, are competing.

Even more surprising is that one reason for much of the interest appears to be plans to mine helium-3--purportedly an ideal fuel for fusion reactors but almost unavailable on Earth--from the moon's surface. NASA's Vision for Space Exploration has U.S. astronauts scheduled to be back on the moon in 2020 and permanently staffing a base there by 2024. While the U.S. space agency has neither announced nor denied any desire to mine helium-3, it has nevertheless placed advocates of mining He3 in influential positions. For its part, Russia claims that the aim of any lunar program of its own--for what it's worth, the rocket corporation Energia recently started blustering, Soviet-style, that it will build a permanent moon base by 2015-2020--will be extracting He3.

The Chinese, too, apparently believe that helium-3 from the moon can enable fusion plants on Earth. This fall, the People's Republic expects to orbit a satellite around the moon and then land an unmanned vehicle there in 2011.
However, I believe this rush for Helium 3 is unnecessary for fusion fuels.

First of there is enough Deuterium in the ocean for millions of years of power at current rates of world consumption. Second if we use Boron 11 in our fusion reactors we have supplies good for at least 100,000 years in mines and more if we extract it from the ocean.

Deuterium is good because it is abundant, but when it fuses it produces lots of neutrons. Neutrons cause problems. Boron 11 when it fuses with Hydrogen (sometimes referred to as proton-Boron 11 fusion) produces very few neutrons.

In any case, the reason for the race to Helium 3 is that it "ignites" in a fusion reactor at lower energies than either Deuterium or Boron 11. For a Tokamak reactor like ITER this is a big problem. It doesn't do the high temperatures needed for Deuterium or Boron 11 well. As Plasma Physicist Dr. Nicholas Krall said, "We spent $15 billion dollars studying tokamaks and what we learned about them is that they are no damn good."

There are alternatives. One is the Bussard Reactor which has been funded. We will know in the next 6 to 9 months if such a reactor is feasible.

There are lots of good reasons to go into space. Mining Helium 3 for use on Earth may not be one of them.


LarryD said...

And some of the He3 reactions are aneutronic, as well.

As a fuel for Lunar power reactors it makes sense. But I categorize all plans involving space-based power generation and beaming the power down to earth as suffering from the "Sword of Damocles" problem. They could too easily be turned into WMDs.

tonemcd said...

"We will know in the next 6 to 9 months if such a reactor is feasible."

Wow - I've not read this before. Excellent news!

Certainly if the Bussard reactor works as promised, then you're not going to need He3 - so this really changes the game (but you're not going to need Ur and other stuff either..)

Truly exciting times!