The Chinese just launched another mission to the moon, this time a lunar probe known as Chang’e-3 (named for the mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon) containing the Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) lunar rover. Jade Rabbit will crawl about the moon’s surface starting in mid-December, much the same as NASA’s Curiosity is currently crawling around the surface of Mars. If the Chinese just figured out how to soft-land on the moon while NASA has already figured how to get to Mars, there's nothing to be worried about for NASA, right?
Not so fast.
If you read Western media accounts of China's lunar exploration launch, Chang'e-3 sounds like China’s desperate attempt to bolster its national pride and show off its technology chops to the world. The term used in the Western media is "the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation." From this perspective, the space race is the new arms race, as China competes for the prestige of global rivals such as the United States and Russia. The effort, too, can help China stand out from Asian competitors, such as Japan and India, which also have bold new space exploration initiatives on tap.
But there’s another angle that hasn’t been fully discussed here – and that is the fact that the moon could become a vast new energy source. It is, if you will, a giant helium balloon rather than a rock. According to China Daily, the moon may not have rich oil and gas deposits or even any valuable minerals for mining operations, but it has something potentially even more important – a rich source of helium-3, which can be used for fusion reactors as a source of fuel.
According to one scenario from China’s space experts, China would mine the moon for helium-3 and use that to operate nuclear reactors that could generate power for 10,000 years or longer. Even NASA has considered this possibility of nuclear reactors on the moon. According to China’s Xinhua News Agency, helium-3 is a “non-polluting and potent element with almost no radioactive byproduct… considered by many scientists to be the perfect fusion energy source to replace oil and gas.” And, say the Chinese, there are more than 1 million metric tons of Helium-3 on the moon. Finders keepers.
It's not China -- all the Asian space powers are becoming much smarter about the way that the moon can be used as a springboard for deep space expeditions elsewhere. India just sent a mission to Mars, and China has been considering a Mars mission for years. After completing phase three of China’s expanding unmanned lunar exploration project, the goal is to actually put a Chinese astronaut on the surface of the moon and then to build a Chinese lunar base.
Considering that the last time anyone even landed on the moon was back in 1976, that is a remarkably long time to let the moon sit idle. NASA has been sitting on its accomplishments for way too long, and now the Chinese have finally caught up. And perhaps, too, so have the Russians and the Japanese and the Indians.
The problem is that most of the U.S. space establishment – including NASA - continues to view the moon as just a rock. Going to the moon isn’t sexy anymore. We don't spend billions to bring back worthless moon rocks. Now it’s all about getting to Mars and (of late) blowing up killer asteroids before they smash into Earth. The Chinese approach to space exploration - which focuses on both unmanned and manned missions to the moon - might change all that. If all those claims about helium-3 and endless nuclear power are anywhere close to being true, then Jade Rabbit should galvanize the space establishment in the United States as much as Sputnik did more than 50 years ago.
image: NASA Apollo 17 Lunar Rover via Wikimedia Commons