mining Helium 3 from the MoonThis is the bold title of a Daily Mail article, in which the Chief Scientist of China’s Lunar Exploration Program, Professor Ouyang Ziyuan, describes an audacious plan to return to the Moon that will provide a direct benefit to Earth.

Lunar samples brought back by Apollo astronauts indicated a significant amount of Helium 3, a non-radioactive form of helium that scientists say could fuel clean fusion power plants.  Ouyang proposed a plan to place a mining facility on the Moon to extract helium 3 from the rock; then fly the helium to Earth in storage tanks and use it to provide power for the world, much as the movie Moon depicted the process.  He estimates that 40 tonnes of helium, when used in clean fusion plants, could power the United States for a year at the current rate of energy consumption.

Sounds great, right?

Oh, wait… “clean fusion plants”?

Yeah, there’s always a catch… and in this case, it’s a power plant that doesn’t yet exist.  “Clean fusion” is almost the perpetual motion of the age, as no one has been able to design a fusion plant that could generate more in output than it takes to run it.  Of course, engineers think we’re close to making it work; and if we do, a large supply of Helium 3 would be useful.

But is this the best way to go about getting Helium 3?  There’s a lot more of it in the atmosphere of Jupiter, and some scientists think it would be easier to harvest it there than to go to the Moon, heat lunar rocks to 600°C and crack the helium 3 out of it.

So even this plan to return to the Moon might not be the bee’s knees.  But possibly we could mine other useful elements from the lunar surface, possibly to create spacecraft elements outside of the deep gravity well of Earth.  Clean fusion or not, it still might be worth the trip.