Chinese scientists have discovered a new mineral on the Moon. This could have significant consequences. This mineral contains helium-3, an atomic nucleus that could be used as fuel for nuclear fusion reactors.
The discovery was announced on Friday. China’s national news agency Xinhua describes the mineral as a colorless crystal. It was discovered in a shipment of lunar soil brought back to Earth by the Chang’e-5 probe in 2020, the first Chinese mission to bring back samples from the Moon.
It is also the first time in history that China has discovered a new mineral on the Moon. And it seems to be an immediate success: although other minerals have been discovered on our natural satellite by the United States and Russia, China claims that this discovery is unique. The mineral, Changesiet-(Y), named after Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the Moon, would contain helium 3.
This presence of helium 3 is of great importance. This isotope is essential to power some nuclear fusion reactors. Although they are all currently in the experimental phase, many scientists hope that within a few decades they will provide an almost unlimited source of energy, which will not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Most of these reactors are designed to fuse deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen, to produce energy. But some designs consider the use of helium-3: the fusion of helium-3 nuclei would release a large amount of energy without the surrounding materials becoming radioactive afterwards.
However, helium 3 is rather rare on earth, which could make these projects difficult. This is why scientists have been interested in the Moon, where the supply would be considerable. The solar wind, that is to say the high-energy particles constantly projected into space by the Sun, has deposited a million tons of helium-3 there over the years. The regolith could contain a thousand to ten thousand times more helium 3 than what is found in the Earth’s atmosphere.
China wants to become a leader
China now wants to deploy more resources to determine if the extraction of this material is possible. A day after the discovery of helium 3 in Changesiet-(Y), the country immediately announced three new unmanned missions to the Moon over the next decade. China has been launching unmanned probes to our natural satellite since 2007, as part of its lunar program launched in 2004.
The expansion of the lunar program is a sign of China’s growing ambitions in space. For example, the country recently started building its own space station, Tiangong, which is meant to rival the ISS. In 2021, an unmanned Chinese rover landed on Mars for the first time, another sign that the country is catching up. Over the next decade, China also wants to bring humans to the Red Planet, as does the West.