A vial of lunar dust, scraped from the lunar crust by a Chinese rover, contains a tiny crystal that could one day power a nuclear reactor.
The mineral crystal was identified by scientists at the Uranium Geology Research Institute in Beijing and dubbed “Changesite-(Y)”, after Chang’e, the Chinese mythological moon goddess. . Sharing the namesake is China’s first lunar sample collection rover, Chang’e 5, which collected dust in the winter of 2020.
The crystal, which appears as a colorless, transparent column with a radius of just 10 microns, could prove to be a gold mine for future space exploration – or at least, a form of lunar gold. that countries will rush to exploit. Its chemical composition contains helium-3, a heavier isotope of helium that has existed naturally in the earth’s crust since primordial times but has slowly escaped into space over time, now becoming extremely rare. on our planet. Helium-3 is believed to be a valuable source of nuclear fusion energy, and it also avoids the terrifying side effect of making its surroundings radioactive. On the moon, it is thought to exist in abundance, carried away in the regolith by billions of years of solar winds.
This discovery makes China the third country to identify a new lunar mineral, behind the United States and former Soviet Russia. And in doing so, it signals a changing dynamic in the 21st century space race, as China seeks to join the two historic superpowers in its quest to colonize the skies. While the country has lagged so far – deploying its first lunar rover decades after its predecessors – it has stepped up its efforts in recent years, launching its pioneering space station last spring. On Saturday, inspired by Changesite’s discovery, Beijing’s National Space Administration revealed that it will send three orbiters to the moon over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, the agency’s announced Mars rover, launched in July 2020, rivals NASA’s own efforts on the Red Planet.
The United States remains the only country to have landed an astronaut on the Moon, a feat it hopes to replicate for the first time in half a century with its Artemis missions. But with its first test flight now postponed due to technical issues, tension hangs over what experts say is the next shining trophy for international space programs: the infrastructure to mine minerals on the moon, which could fuel a billion dollar industry. The competition is so contentious – and the prize so valuable – that the political war has already begun over how to govern theoretical mining ventures in space.
Helium-3 is the beating heart of this ambition, along with two other critical resources that are running out on earth: water and the so-called rare earth metals, which are used to produce modern electronics, and which, estimates could be drained from our planet in 15 to 20 years.
Next, China’s Chang’e program will target the moon’s south pole, which scientists say is the region most likely to harbor water. In years to come, NASA will be aiming for the same spot.