A Chinese mission to the moon has successfully entered orbit as part of an attempt to explore the possibility of mining on the lunar surface. The Chinese plan is to land a robotic spaceship on the lunar surface and take four pounds of rock and soil samples to aid in testing for a rare helium isotope known as helium-3. Top Chinese scientists say that helium-3 could be the key to supplying Earth’s energy needs for years to come. NASA has also studied the possibility of mining on the moon, but as one scientist has written, it is an immensely complicated proposition.
The current Chinese mission is part of their efforts to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon and then bring it back to earth. The value of such an achievement cannot be overstated, especially since the mineral resources on the moon are so abundant. All of this is testing for a future mission, planned for 2017. While the Chinese are only the third country to orbit the moon behind the United States and Russia, their mission is highly ambitious and the world will be watching closely.
The idea of mining the moon is an important one for scientists, some of whom are still debating whether it is a feasible idea. The Chinese Lunar Program’s chief scientist Ouyang Ziyuan has said that helium-3, the isotope being searched for on the moon, could “solve humanity’s energy demand for around 10,000 years.” That kind of resource, an alternative to fossil fuels, might be the most valuable discovery of the century. But just how sound the plan of mining the moon is is still open for debate. Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary science and astrobiology in London, is about to publish a paper on just that subject. As he told an interviewer, the subject is “quite complicated.” While he is optimistic that such a find would be useful, the case has yet to be satisfactorily made by anyone.
NASA has been looking at mining the moon for awhile, particularly the idea of mining it for water. Two future projects are set to take off in 2017 and 2018, reflecting the same timeline as that of the Chinese. But they are looking at the idea of a base on the moon that could support human life. Barbara Cohen, a researcher for the Lunar Flashlight project, noted that water is a primary requisite for supporting human life and if possible, using water from the immediate area would be a more cost effective way of doing that than importing it from earth.
China and NASA both have projects set to study the lunar surface and the possibilities contained therein. From mining to supporting a human colony, the lunar surface offers a range of possibilities that only need to be better understood to be taken advantage of. With concerns like energy sources for earth, the idea that answers could lie in the stars themselves is an attractive prospect. If missions like China’s and NASA’s future plans are successful, the science fiction ideas of a lunar colony and inhabiting other spheres in the galaxy could very well become science fact. While this recent mission to the moon is an adventurous and ambitious project, the possibilities that open up for mining resources and creating a new source of energy are worth exploring.
By Lydia Bradbury