Originally Published 2018-07-06 07:40:38 Published on Jul 06, 2018
Forget Helium-3! Concentrate on lunar sites with water

According to recent number of articles, the bid to mine Helium-3 from the moon for energy production is being purported as a raison d’etre for lunar exploration. However, the technological challenges and economic viability of the processes involved makes this an unimaginative argument for space exploration. This is an oversimplification at best of the core reasons and conditions inspiring the next race of lunar exploration.

So rather than focussing on Helium-3, competition will intensify for capturing lunar sites with a high potential for basic resources such as water and sunlight rather than Helium-3. The scarcity of such sites and the increasing number of government and commercial entities planning lunar missions in the absence of a competent space law will lead to an increased sense of competition than that defined the Cold War space race.

Helium-3 was discovered in the lunar samples returned during the Cold War period. It was deposited on the moon by the direct bombardment of solar wind and is thought to produce nuclear energy without harmful waste.

However, harnessing energy from this isotope requires a nuclear fusion reactor, which is yet to be proven. Moreover, the supply chain including the process of extraction, transportation, purification and energy production from Helium-3 is going to be complex and legally challenging, not to mention the financially viability of the mission. As a result, Helium-3 remains in the lunar dust as long as the current state of relevant technologies, business models and international space law are not updated.

For that matter, there exist other resources that could be mined and used in manufacturing. Lunar samples and orbiting spacecraft produced mineral composition maps of the moon showing the presence of silicon, iron, aluminium, titanium, calcium, magnesium etc. Therefore, a viable supply chain could also extract these minerals from the moon.

However, the fundamental debate on space resources is not about Helium-3 but water and sunlight. Water is present throughout the solar system in the form of water-ice. It currently costs about $2,500 to send a water bottle to the international space station. Human outposts near the moon or permanent settlements on the moon could take advantage of lunar water supply. This will enable growing food in space as well as producing rocket fuel by breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen. Moreover the resources that can be extracted locally, lesser the quantity of supplies, need to be transported from earth. The reduced load decreases the launch costs making these initiatives financially feasible.

Another essential resource for the robotic spacecraft and human settlements is energy. However, there are few areas on the moon that can provide constant illumination. The peaks of eternal light are small areas on the moon that receive sunlight for more than 80 per cent of the time. Such peaks are scarce and are found only near the lunar poles, ning a mere few hundred metres.

Considering that lunar poles are also a great source of water, these peaks could invite intense competition and possibly assertion of quasi-property rights. An entity could restrict another entity from nearing its installation on the lunar surface citing interference leading to quasi-ownership of the site.

There are different entities with competing visions, policies and business models vying for such resources. The Trump administration has directed NASA to re-establish human presence on the moon and the European Space Agency is striving to gain support for its moon Village concept requiring utilising lunar resources. Chinese space policy planners are working towards landing the taikonauts — their astronauts — on the moon by 2040.

China’s scale and aggressiveness, supported by low manufacturing and operating costs, are being matched by Western commercial companies aiming to establish a lunar economy. These companies are supported by decades of space technology development and exploration management in addition to lite-touch regulations from the governments. SpaceX has demonstrated reusable rocket technology and Blue Origin is planning to establish basic lunar infrastructure to enable space miners. Even NASA plans to utilise commercial lunar services to send instruments to moon.

Unfortunately, the international space law is yet to break from the Cold War conditioning to regulate competition and settle probable conflicts. Mining of space resources was not technologically conceivable during the 1960s and 1970s and the moon treaty speaking of space resources is practically ineffective. This situation is changing now with the US and Luxembourg enacting domestic laws granting legal rights to the companies to own and sell mined space resources. But, an international legal debate on the development and utilisation of space resources is yet to begin.

Helium-3 becomes an inconsequential topic considering the varied, intricate issues at the core of mining space resources and their utilisation. To be sure, mining water and other resources is equally complex and yet to be proven. More than the technological viability of Helium-3 energy production, the financial and regulatory challenges dominate the space mining debate requiring international coordination rather than ad-hocstatements from disparate entities.

This commentary originally appeared in DNA.

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Adnan Shihab-Eldin

Adnan Shihab-Eldin

Adnan Shihab-Eldin Oxford Institute for Energy Studies

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