China Leads Race to the Moon
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

China Leads Race to the Moon


In October 2014, China’s Chang’e 5-T1 lunar probe, known as Xiaofei or Little Flyer, successfully completed an orbit around the Moon. This was the first time that a trip around the Moon and back of this sort had been made since the USA and Russian trips in the 1970s. The Little flyer is a precursor to Chang’e 5 which will bring back lunar soil (regolith) containing the nuclear fuel helium-3 that can be used for baseload energy production and the next generation of nuclear weapons.

The Little Flyer mission lasted eight days and its primary objective was to conduct atmospheric re-entry tests on the Chang’e 5 capsule design which will be launched by 2017. The destination on the lunar surface for Chang’e 5, like that of the Yutu Jade Rabbit rover, is the Mare Imbrium also known as the Sea of Rains, one of the vast lunar crater seas visible from Earth and a known repository of high concentrations of helium-3. This now puts China strongly in the lead in the secret space race between states to secure helium-3, which has one of the highest known energy return on investment ratios while also being a fourth-generation nuclear weapons fuel.

In the words of former president of India Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, “The Moon contains 10 times more energy in the form of helium-3 than all the fossil fuels on the earth.”

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To put this into perspective one ton of helium-3 can produce 10,000 megawatt years of electricity. This is enough energy to power 80 percent of Tokyo’s energy needs for a whole year, or a city of 7.3 million people like Hong Kong, Hyderabad or Singapore. This much energy is comparable to 315 petajoules released in a nuclear weapon explosion.

Compare this to the largest nuclear weapon explosion on record, the 1962 test of the Russia Tsar Bomba, which released 210-240 petajoules. The bomb had a 50-58 megaton destructive capacity, equivalent to 1,350 times the combined power of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ten times the combined power of all the conventional explosives used in World War II. The detonation left behind a zone of total destruction with a radius of 35 km and produced a mushroom cloud 64 km high. The explosion was so powerful that it registered 8.1 on the Richter scale, shattering windows more than 900 km away and sending seismic shockwaves around the Earth three times. It was the largest ever nuclear explosion.

One ton of helium-3 has the potential to produce 1.5 times more destructive power than the Tsar Bomba. In other words, the potential to make a nuclear weapon with a 75 megaton yield.

Fusion is often criticized as being always thirty years away, unworkable, or not possible. In fact, fusion is a very real and workable technology and has been with us since the Ivy Mike hydrogen bomb detonation in 1952. The internal dynamic of a thermonuclear explosion is fusion. Man-made fusion is an essential process of the chain reactions of all thermonuclear weapons held by states today and of course every star in the universe works from fusion.

The energy released by the Tsar Bomba was 97 percent derived from fusion so it produced very little radioactive fallout and was considered the cleanest nuclear explosion.

Thermonuclear weapons use deuterium and tritium, which just happens to be the fuel used by the ITER fusion energy production experiment in France, the harmful radiation from which is twice as damaging to human health as a standard nuclear fission reactor. Helium-3 exists on Earth principally as a by-product of tritium nuclear warhead decay from the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles, totalling around 600 kg, with another 100 kg found in nature. However, vast quantities of Helium-3 exist up to six meters deep in the lunar soil.

When fused with itself, helium-3 is attractive as a nuclear fuel for energy generation because it does not emit harmful radioactive neutrons. A 1,000 MW nuclear power station using only helium-3 as a fuel would produce no radiation. Likewise, pure helium-3 fourth-generation nuclear weapons would produce minimal or no radioactive fallout thus challenging the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons and their status as unconventional weapons.

Helium-3 weapons are more likely to be tactical in nature, small enough to be used in battlefields, allowing for armies to occupy a territory soon after detonation without concern for high levels of radiation. However, governments willing to forego the energy generation value of a ton of helium-3 could build a Brahmastra-style strategic weapon with a yield larger than the Tsar Bomba.

With no radioactive fallout a helium-3 nuclear missile could be suitable for destroying asteroids. In 2013, NASA estimated there was more than 1,400 potentially hazardous asteroids threatening Earth.

Much has been written about the value of helium-3 for non-radiation producing energy production and states around the world are quietly positioning themselves to secure it from the Moon. In fact, most national space programs citing Mars as the primary objective conveniently include the Moon as a stepping stone, including NASA’s Space Launch System with its 130 tons payload capacity, which will be the biggest heavy lift rocket ever built. If one state secures helium-3 exclusively, then it will become the new global hegemon.

China is very close to a breakthrough in energy production from helium-3 and the goals of its space program inspired by the visionary Professor Ouyang Ziyuan are closely, if not directly, related to securing helium-3 as a geostrategic national priority. Several other stakeholders are also working on duel use applications of helium-3 and other fusion fuels.

It is widely considered by governments that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Non Proliferation Treaty do not ban confinement fusion research, largely because at the time of the treaty negotiations the size of the machines required for fusion research could not possibly fit inside deployable nuclear missiles. With helium-3, weapons would be much easier to build in secret as they would be invisible to radiation sensing equipment such as the neutron detectors installed in ports around the world.

Deuterium and tritium are the standard fuels used for fusion energy research around the world as well as being the standard primary fuels in thermonuclear weapons.

In October 2014, Lockheed Martin Skunkworks announced that is is working on Magnetic Confinement Fusion in compact fusion reactors for “jet engine sized” propulsion for spacecraft. In 2011, a sustained fusion reaction of pure helium-3 was achieved in the United States, in an inertial electrostatic confinement device the size of a basketball.

Governments should now consider the implications of all of this research for the creation of fourth-generation nuclear weapons, as research into fusion shares the same principles as that for fusion weapons.

Magnetic Confinement Fusion research being done at the HT-7 Tokamak facility in the city of Hefei, China, the KSTAR National Fusion Research Institute in Daejon, South Korea, and the Z Pinch Machine at Sandia National Laboratories in the United States, as well as inertial confinement fusion research with lasers, such as those at the National Ignition Facility in the USA, the Laser Mégajoule in France, or the planned ISKRA-6 at the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, all have the potential for weapons research. So do particle beam accelerators, such as those used by CERN in the EU and KEK in Japan.

When fused with deuterium, helium-3 can produce 18.4 MeV of energy, a scale of energy familiar to scientists working with particle accelerators. Helium-3 fused with deuterium offers the potential for spaceships powered by fusion propulsion to reach Mars in fewer than 100 days, Jupiter or the Sun in only 200 days, and Titan in three to four years. Helium-3 with deuterium propulsion could also enable interstellar travel, with the nearest star accessible in less than 100 years.

To extract helium-3 is a relatively simple surface mining operation that would require sifting through the lunar soil up to six meters deep and then heating it to separate out the helium-3 gas. The technology to extract, compress and return it to Earth already exists in the mining, gas and space industries and the nuclear industry has the capability to build the power stations.

China’s Chang’e 5 rover will build on the work of the Chang’e 3 Yutu rover and will be equipped with a lunar mineral spectrometer and lunar soil gas analytical instruments, in addition to a drilling rig. The rover will drill two meters deep into the lunar surface with the aim of returning two kilograms of lunar soil samples to Earth to analyze concentrations of helium-3. This will be the shot across the bow for the rest of the world.

Helium-3 is the most valuable resource on the Moon. The other known lunar resources include titanium, nickel, the platinum group of metals, aluminum, silicon, uranium, thorium, phosphorous, diamonds, water, and rare earth elements. All of these have been mapped and analyzed by China, India, Japan, and the U.S. over recent years.

The energy potential from helium-3 is significant enough for all major spacefaring nations to be racing to secure it from the lunar surface, no doubt leading to a new rush to claim territory and strip mine sections of the Moon in the style of the “Scramble for Africa.” Some have called for a legal regime for the sharing of lunar resources, which according to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty are the “common heritage of all mankind.” But this might discourage the investment needed to develop these resources. It may be more appropriate that the ancient laws of salvage and the Lockean proviso of performing work on these extraterrestrial resources apply provided that, “… there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” Meaning that the moved resources may be fairly owned and traded, but lunar territory must remain common land.

It was not science or an endeavor to aid the common heritage of mankind that led to the initial establishment of trade routes and settlements across the world. It was the human desire for profit and prosperity. The same motivation will drive prospecting for helium-3 and the other resources on the Moon, asteroids and beyond. So, “Drill, baby, drill!”

Jan Mortier is the Chairman of the Civitatis Forum for the Ambassadors to the Court of St. James’s. Benjamin Finnis is Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Civitatis Forum. The authors would like to thank Mr. Daniel Sowik for his assistance with some of the calculations for this article. 

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