It's all about helium these days. First my 9 year-old asks me if Helium-5 burns, then the Russians are reportedly planning to mine the moon for Helium-3 for reactors. Then Oil-man Bush gets all hot about alternative energy research, Richard Branson commissions Philippe Starck to design a multi-million$ space port in New Mexico (Hm... the logo is a blue eye?) and of course part of the US mission to Mars involves an extensive layover on the moon with a lot of time for exploration and other activities, so maybe we are all thinking the same thing.
Don't believe me? Well maybe we can read some of the documentation and see what is up.
Take a look at the Level 0 Exploration requirements for the mars mission. The basic idea is that development of the capabilities proceeds in a spiral fashion, each loop providing a foundation for the next. The moon plays a big part in this as it is a testing ground and staging point. There are 3 main phases of the project:
- Crew Exploration Development and Test - The goal here is to build a crew exploration vehicle (CEV) and Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV) along with supporting infrastructure to put humans into Low Earth Orbit. This step is underway. Test flights expected in 2010 with the systems fully operational by 2014.
- Global Lunar Access for Human Exploration - Establishes the capability to conduct human exploration missions to any location on the surface of the Moon. This includes robotic systems, a Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM) and a Cargo Delivery System. The robotic part of this is supposed to commence by 2008.
- Lunar Base and Mars Testbed - Estabishes the capability to conduct long term (several month) lunar surface exploration. This includes development of "surface power systems".
The thing that is a bit odd is that it stops there. Having guys living on and driving around on the moon is the end state of the currently published plans. But it is not inconsistant with the mission statement which is:
"NASA shall advance U.S. scientific, technological, security, and economic interests
through a robust human and robotic space exploration program."
Nor is it inconsistant with the stated objective that:
"(1.3) NASA shall explore Jupiter's moons, asteroids, and other bodies to search for evidence of life, to understand the history of the solar system, and to search for
So what is it about Helium-3 which is so attractive? The Helium-3 isotope has a nucleus with two protons and one neutron. A nuclear reactor based on the fusion of helium 3 and deuterium, which has a single nuclear proton and neutron, would produce very few neutrons -- about 1 percent of the number generated by the deuterium-tritium reaction. This means both greater safety for humans and elimination of much of the radioactive shielding which is necessary for other reactions. Unfortunately He-3 is very rare on earth, but much less so on the moon where it is deposited by the solar wind. Uranus and Saturn are presumed to be rich in He-3, so the stop on the moon is just a stepping stone.
Reportedly, just 25 tons of He-3 could supply the current energy needs of the US for an entire year. The moon is estimated to have a million tons of the stuff. Seems to me that the space race is back on. Or at least I hope so. If it all works out it would be a good thing for our planet.
At the very least I hope this post explains why Martians speak in high squeaky voices.