Why is China so interested in exploring the moon? The Chinese have already placed two probes in lunar orbit and have landed a rover on the lunar surface. Later this decade, China intends to conduct a sample return mission to the moon. In the next decade, China is likely to send human astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. The answer, according to the UK Telegraph, is that the moon contains valuable resources, including one in particular that may revolutionize energy production on Earth.

Helium 3 is an isotope that does not occur naturally on Earth, but has been deposited onto lunar soil by billions of years of solar wind. The isotope could be the most valuable resource in the solar system because it could be the fuel that enables clean fusion power.

A typical fusion reaction uses deuterium and tritium which creates, as a byproduct, radioactive neutrons. Fusion using helium 3 does not create such neutrons, therefore making the periodic shutdown of a fusion reactor for decontamination unnecessary.

The drawback for using helium 3 is that the fusion reaction has to be at a much higher temperature than fusion using more conventional fuels.

Still, some estimates suggest that 15 to 20 metric tons of helium 3 would satisfy all of the energy requirements for the United States in a given year. Enough helium 3 may exist on the moon to meet the world’s energy needs for thousands of years. On the negative side, mining the substance would require processing 20 million ounces or so of lunar regolith to extract one ounce of the isotope.

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Nevertheless, China sees helium 3 as a key to becoming the dominant superpower on Earth, giving it control of a source of virtually limitless, clean energy later in the 21st Century. All depends on creating the infrastructure to mine the substance and to bring it back to Earth as well as creating the fusion technology to burn the fuel properly.

In the meantime, American companies such as Moon Express have their own plans to mine the moon for resources, including Helium 3. The United States government recently paved the way for such mining operations by passing a commercial Space law that conferred ownership of space resources that commercial companies mine from the moon and asteroids.

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