Friday, February 22, 2008

The race to control the Earth from the Moon

The perfect energy source does indeed exist.

It’s an energy source so safe that fusion plants using it can be built inside cities to provide electricity. It emits hardly any deadly radiation.

It’s so efficient as a power source that just one million metric tons of this material will produce more than 10 times the energy available from mining all the fossil fuels on Earth—less the pollution.

This perfect energy source is a gas called Helium-3 (He3). There’s enough of this material available to meet the Earth’s entire energy needs for a millennium.

There’s only one problem. It’s found only on the Moon.

And it’s fueling the Second Moon Race that pits the United States against a slew of competitors, the most notable of which is China. Other countries in the running are India, Russia and, surprisingly, Nigeria.

China vs the US
China is the US’ main competitor in this Second Moon Race that appears to be fueled by those old geopolitical objectives called money and power.

China is keen on mining He3 and other strategic moon resources such as water ice and titanium over the next 50 years.

Its Moon program, the “Chang’e Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP),” is essentially a grab for the economic and military power only a lock on the Moon’s resources can provide.

China aims to become the Moon’s first superpower. The United States’ moribund space program, however, seemed content to cling to the “Star Trek” mantra of boldly going where no man has gone before.

That is, until President George Bush in 2004 announced a “New Course” for space exploration that urges the United States to gain a new foothold on the Moon, and to prepare for new journeys to other worlds, specifically Mars.

The goal of the United States’ reenergized space program is to land Americans on the Moon before 2020.

But with Bush and his Republicans on the way out in 2008, it remains a question whether the Democrats share the Republican’s view of space as terrain to be conquered.

In China’s crosshairs
China, however, has the Moon firmly in its sights and appears intent on pulling out all the stops to secure this high ground in the coming struggle for the Moon’s mineral wealth.

A telling indicator of China’s focus on the Moon as a strategic resource is the man placed in charge of CLEP. That man is Ouyang Ziyuan, a cosmochemist and geochemist and a prominent expert in geological research and extraterrestrial materials.

Unsurprisingly, he’s a leading advocate of exploiting the Moon’s resources such as He3, and the leading proponent of Chinese-manned missions to the Moon and Mars.

China aims to build permanent, manned bases on the Moon, a vital first step in exploiting lunar resources. China expects to land on the moon by about 2024.

“The moon has become the focal point wherein future aerospace powers contend for strategic resources,” said Luan Enjie, then vice minister of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, in 2003.

Controlling levers of power
He3 is among those strategic resources. Some scientists see He3 as “the perfect energy source.”

Practically no natural deposits of He3 exist on Earth, however, but more than one million tons of He3 are believed to be found on the Moon. That’s enough energy to power the world for thousands of years, estimate some scientists.

The few hundred pounds of He3 that do exist on Earth are mostly by-products of nuclear weapons maintenance. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin found He3 on the Moon in 1969.

He3 is easily found in the lunar “regolith” or lunar soil, and is extracted by heating the soil to 600 degrees Centigrade. About half the Moon’s supplies of He3 are in the lunar “marias” or seas.

He3 fusion energy is extremely potent, nonpolluting and produces almost no radioactive by-products, as does the conventional nuclear technology used to produce electricity. It is, therefore, an ideal power source for spacecraft on long, interstellar trips.

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