In pursuit of helium-3: what the Americans want to mine on the moon and why without Russia
Mining on the Moon is still too expensive, but things could change in the near future.
Unexpected, almost shocking news came from the United States. Reuters, which is definitely not classified as a "yellow media" and "fake", recently reported that the administration of President Trump is preparing a draft international treaty on the extraction of minerals on the moon. According to information currently available, Russia will not be involved in the development of the provisions of this agreement, but will be able to join it later, on the terms developed and approved by other countries.
The contract, which will be called "ArtemisAccords", involves the creation of certain "security zones" on the moon around the alleged lunar bases of the contracting countries. They will be needed "to prevent damage or interference" from competitors. In addition, companies engaged in the development of lunar resources, in accordance with the contract, will become their owners.
Presumably, Canada, EU countries, Japan, and, oddly enough, the UAE will be involved in the discussion of the provisions of the treaty. Moreover, the lack of Russia’s list is due to nothing more than the Pentagon’s concern over the “threatening” maneuvers of Russian satellites in orbit, which forces the US military to view Russia, I quote, “as an enemy.” Well, what are the agreements with the enemy? That's it…
It is expressly agreed that we are not talking about any territorial claims on the lunar surface. It will just be necessary to notify the "owners" of the site that you are going to approach their possessions or, moreover, to lodge within them. Consult with the owner how this can be done in the most secure way. And if he gives the go-ahead, follow his instructions and orders.
These, as they say, are facts from the news feed. But there are other stubborn facts that are not very compatible with the news and make us ask not very simple questions. And the most obvious of them - and why all this is needed right now?
We all know very well that putting cargo into orbit is very expensive. Accordingly, any industrial activity in orbit of the Earth will cost some absolutely fabulous money. If we are talking about mining on the moon, we can only guess about the cost of the resources extracted there. Indeed, literally everything will have to be imported from the Earth, there the technological process, the presence of people, the shipment of goods back (and this, in order for the business to somehow pay off at least in theory, there must be tons of minerals in one trip), land them on Earth. That is, a ton of cargo delivered from the moon will cost, according to the most conservative estimates, not even tens, but hundreds of millions of dollars. So, even if you mine gold there, at current metal prices, the idea will not pay off.
Just in case, we also mention mineral exploration. Even in terrestrial conditions, this is a rather complex, laborious and costly process. On the moon, its cost will increase by several orders of magnitude, that is, at least a thousand times. Assume that some private company will be able to "pull" exploration in extraterrestrial conditions, now only some kind of romantic fiction dreaming of conquering other worlds can.
And yet, strangely enough, one project of mining on the Moon still belongs to the category of theoretically possible and even potentially payable. And this is not the extraction of gold, palladium or other precious metals. Rare earth metals of the platinum or transuranium groups are also past. No, we are talking about helium, and more precisely, about its isotope Helium-3.
As we have all been convinced more than once, science does not stand still, and from time to time we become witnesses of its confident steps forward. It is very likely that in the foreseeable future, energy will also take such a step, moving from nuclear to thermonuclear generation. This promises enormous benefits for all of humanity, although it is fraught with enormous difficulties.
First of all, let's try to understand how thermonuclear fusion differs from the usual nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion is based on the fission reaction of nuclei of chemical elements. That is, during such a reaction, an element loses part of its core, releasing some energy and turning into a simpler element. Best of all, this reaction occurs with “heavy” elements, for example, with uranium or those that stand behind it in the periodic table.
But there is also a reverse process - the reaction of nuclear fusion with the formation of a new, heavier element. The simplest example of such a reaction is a hydrogen bomb. In it, hydrogen atoms merge into a helium atom, releasing just a huge amount of energy. That is why, for example, the power of atomic bombs is usually counted out by dozens of kilotons (thousand tons) of TNT, and the power of hydrogen begins, as a rule, with megatons (million tons of TNT).
True, there is one problem - it is very difficult to start the fusion reaction, huge temperatures and pressure are required. Therefore, the "fuse" for the hydrogen bomb is the atomic bomb. Moreover, in the literal sense, a small atomic bomb is placed in the body of a hydrogen bomb, where hydrogen isotopes are pumped in the right amount. And it is precisely its explosion that creates, for a split second, the temperature and pressure necessary to start a thermonuclear reaction.
This, of course, is a very simplified description of the launch of a thermonuclear explosion, but it gives some idea of how complicated this process is in itself. And this, mind you, is the simplest, explosive version of the reaction. Now imagine that your goal is not to blow everything up to "such-and-such a mother", but to provide a calm, peaceful thermonuclear reaction for a fairly long time. That is, to keep in a very small enclosed space a flame that rages at a temperature of hundreds of millions of degrees and releases tremendous energy. In addition, this energy also needs to be somehow collected, subordinated to your will and sent to electric networks, where you can consume it through your electric devices.
So this is the problem. Alas, no one in the world has yet succeeded in subjugating thermonuclear fusion and providing a self-sustaining thermonuclear reaction for at least a few seconds. Currently available installations such as a tokamak or a stellarator, which are the prototypes of future thermonuclear reactors, have so far learned to hold plasma heated to about one hundred million tons. This, in general, is already close to necessary. But there is still no talk of industrial production of thermonuclear energy — the key problems of energy extraction and the rapid degradation of the materials from which this reactor will be made have not been resolved.
That is, thermonuclear energy is still in its infancy, strictly speaking, it has not even been born. But at the same time, we are invited to produce helium-3, which can be in demand in the next generation thermonuclear reactors, the construction of which is not even discussed at the moment. The fact is that the process of thermonuclear “burning” of helium-3 takes place at absolutely fantastic temperatures of the order of a billion degrees, the production of which, even in laboratory conditions, does not seem to be the case of the very near future.
On the other hand, scientists look at this resource as the most promising. And interest in it is great - it is assumed that in the case of the transition to thermonuclear "helium" fusion, he will be able to provide the Earth with energy for about five thousand years. More precisely, not quite so ...
The fact is that on the Earth itself there is very little of this isotope. Its total amount in the Earth’s atmosphere is estimated at only 35 thousand tons, which is very, very small. Its extraction in terrestrial conditions is very problematic precisely because of its very low prevalence. Alas, helium-3, falling to the earth with a solar wind, is absorbed by the atmosphere and just as easily leaves our planet.
But on the Moon, where there is no atmosphere, the situation is different - there this isotope is absorbed by the soil and its accumulation is faster than the release. That is why its content there is simply huge by earthly standards - about one tenth of a gram per ton. And this, even with existing technologies, allows for its industrial production on the lunar surface. True, the extraction of only one ton of helium-3 will require processing of at least many millions tons of lunar soil, but at least there is confidence that with some persistence you will get it.
The fact that Russia has plans to create a lunar base, back in 2006, announced the then head of RSC Energia Nikolai Sevastyanov. According to him, the base and transportation system should be ready by 2015, and another five years later, in 2020, it is planned to begin the industrial production of helium-3 and its delivery to Earth. As we understand, these plans were not destined to come true even in part, but the fact of such a statement indicates some interest in this issue from the authorities and large business.
In 2018, Dmitry Rogozin stated that helium-3 is interesting as the future of rocket fuel. Although, if guided by common sense, he was referring rather to "space" fuel and spoke in the expectation of the appearance of spacecraft with a thermonuclear power plant. Alas, just as helium-3 rocket fuel is, in principle, not interesting and will never be interesting - it’s enough that it is an inert gas, which in normal conditions does not burn at all ....
Outline designs of plants for the production of helium-3 on the Moon and its transportation to Earth were made at NASA. It seems that the matter did not go beyond this. In any case, they did not make loud statements about the imminent start of industrial production of helium on the moon ...
The current consumption of this isotope on Earth is limited to thousands of liters. It is used in the production of neutron counters, and has also recently begun to be used to create MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) devices. This consumption is slightly higher than modern industry can provide, but all the same, the probable helium-3 deficit is unlikely to lead to such an increase in prices that its commercial production on the moon will be justified.
So, only the rapid development of thermonuclear energy can save the situation. Otherwise, all the talk about the extraction of resources on the moon for many decades will be a pure abstraction ...
Or you have to admit another option: perhaps the contract mentioned at the beginning of the article has a desire to still mask something. For example, the military presence of some states on the lunar surface. And the wording “prevention of interference” is not bad for this, because something must be prevented from interfering, right? For example, weapons ...
It is difficult to say how Russia needs to respond to all this. The most reasonable, at first glance, option is to immediately state that Moscow will not recognize the provisions of this agreement and will never join it if it is developed without its participation. Of course, it will be necessary to block any attempts to smuggle him through the UN. And taking into account the fact that China, which was also not invited to the discussion, will certainly stand on the side of Russia, the probability of making it an “internal document” for a very limited number of signatories is very high.
At the same time, the fact of the preparation of such an agreement in itself may speak of something that is not yet known to ordinary citizens. For example, about the probability of a breakthrough in the field of thermonuclear research and about a possible revolution in the energy sector. Of course, this is just an assumption, but should we at least in theory assume that not only evil and deceit comes from the Americans?