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It's all about helium these days

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 resources"

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.


Comments (1)


The CEV program, as you mention is part of a greater Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS). The Vision document for that program can be found through http://herdingcats.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/01/what_does_a_vis.html

There are numerous challenges in this endeavor, not the least of which is funding for the spirals. The current RFP for the CEV will result in a vehicle that can fly to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The lunar missions are very nice Power Point presentations. The short fall in lift capacity for completing ISS is the short term need.

The Mars exploration cycle has several profiles (see page 69 of the ESAS). These are a small description of a 2.5 year flight mission to and from Mars. 6 months transfer to and from Mars and 18 months on Mars. This description seems like "science fiction" when placed in the context of the technical complexity of building a new manned vehicle like the CEV. This is 3 paragraphs in a 750 page "high level overview architecture" that gets it to and from ISS.

While the exploration of the solar system hopefully inspires our nation and especially our youth - the hard cold reality of flying to and from Mars and staying there may be out of our reach.

One useful thing you can do for your children is to build a scale model of the solar system. http://www.exploratorium.edu/ronh/solar_system/ is one starting point. If the sun is represented by a 360" diameter ball - say a ball the size of a two car garage, then the earth is 3 1/4 feet in diameter and about 3,000 feet away. Mars is 1 3/4 feet in diameter and about 5,000 feet away from the sun. The difference between Earth and Mars is about 1,700 feet or about 5 football fields. This can be simulated in many places that have sufficient open space.

The point is Mars is a very long ways away.

In the end it is not a technical problem. It is a human problem of how to live and survive for long periods of time in the complete isolation of space.

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