China’s plan: drill the Moon to “power” the Earth

Drilling the Moon could be the solution to creating clean energy for Earth, at least according to China. Studies of lunar rocks are just beginning.

The Chang'e 5 mission brought back to Earth last December nearly two kilos of material taken from the Moon's surface. Today Chinese institutions have finally started to study the moon rocks, and the first statements seem to explain why China has decided - almost suddenly - to aim at the Moon.

The moon rocks

A few months ago the first moon rocks have been distributed to several Chinese universities and institutions, in order to study them: 31 samples of lunar material, not only rocky but also glass-like, have been distributed to 13 different study centers.

The Research Institute of Uranium Geology in Beijing, for example, is studying in these days a sample of about 50 milligrams of lunar rock in search of an isotope known as Helium-3.

The investigation seems anything but casual: Helium-3, in fact, a stable non-radioactive isotope, could be the basis of the so-called "second generation" nuclear fusion. China is engaged in recent years in the forefront in the definition of a new nuclear strategy: not only is studying the use of thorium as nuclear fuel, but presents plants already fourth generation, in the classification of nuclear power plants.

Elio-3 could be a third way, in the desperate pursuit of China to reduce CO2 emissions, which here passes all through nuclear power.

But there is more: on Earth Helium-3 is very, very rare. On the Moon, however, it is thought to be routinely transported by solar currents, which would deposit it on the satellite's surface in large quantities.

Can the Moon "power" the Earth?

"The main objective of the study," says Huang Zhixin of the Beijing Institute, "is to determine the helium-3 content of the lunar soil, the extraction parameters of helium-3, and how it anchors to the lunar soil."

Stated very clearly, Chinese scientists are trying to figure out whether it's worth drilling on the Moon, and under what conditions, if any, it's possible to do so. Extracting materials from the Moon to increase renewable energy sources on Earth is China's openly stated goal.

According to Ian Crawford, Professor of Astrobiology at the University of London, the idea of "mining" the lunar soil to extract energy for use on Earth is "a distant project at best." The costs of extracting and transporting the material from the Moon, he explains, will still be extremely higher than anything we come up with to create clean energy on Earth.

"In any case," Crawford admits, "measuring Helium-3 concentrations at different points on the Moon has its scientific validity," as it will in any case allow us to learn more about the small rocky satellite.

In fact, as the head of research at the Institute of Uranium Geology says, "the research is not only of great value in the potential future exploitation of the Moon's natural resources, but it has great significance for the scientific study of the Moon in general."

Also, the other 12 samples of lunar material are in fact serving more general purposes: lunar rocks are being dated at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Li Chunlai, deputy director of China's National Astronomical Observatory, openly applauds the widespread study of the material.

The study of lunar rocks "can fill in the blanks in Earth's own geological history," whose oldest traces have been largely erased by the planet's activity.

Soon, Li Chunlai continues, we will have the first results of studies of lunar material samples, and a new mission to the Moon is planned for 2024.