China’s Chang’E-5 robotic Moon mission has confirmed the discovery of a new mineral on the moon, a transparent crystal named Changesite-(Y), as well as a promising potential fusion fuel.
In a joint announcement from the China National Space Administration and the China Atomic Energy Authority last week, China celebrated its first new mineral discovered on the Moon – and the sixth ever by mankind. According to Chinese news agency Xinhua, “Changesite-(Y) is a kind of colorless transparent columnar crystal. It was discovered from an analysis of lunar basalt particles by a research team from the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology, a subsidiary of the China National Nuclear Corporation.”
The sample analyzed – and confirmed by the International Mineralogical Association as a new mineral – was found among just 1,731 g (61 oz) of lunar samples brought back by the Chang’E 5 mission in 2020.
Helium-3 is thought of as an optimistic potential fuel for nuclear fusion.
However, there are some drawbacks. A helium-3 fusion reactor will need to operate at much higher temperatures than a tritium reactor, for example, and helium-3 is extremely rare and difficult to isolate on Earth.
The Moon’s surface is believed to contain as much as 1.1 million metric tons of helium 3. According to the International Policy Digest, that represents around $1.5 quadrillion worth of resources, and an opportunity summarized by Ouyang Ziyuan, head of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, as a transformational fusion energy opportunity: “each year, three space shuttle missions could bring enough fuel for all human beings across the world.”
However, it will be a long time before it is practically used for fuel. If fusion researchers manage to create and sustain the “much higher” ~600 million-degree temperatures needed for helium-3 fusion, maybe they’ll achieve the billion-degree temperatures needed for hydrogen-boron fusion, which is equally free from radioactive fuels and by-products but uses increasingly cheap and abundant fuel – and which fusion company TAE says it expects will be up and running commercially by the early to mid-2030s.
“Analyzing the composition of lunar soil and lunar rock samples and studying nuclear science to assess potential nuclear energy resources on the Moon is one of the strategic goals of China’s Lunar Exploration Project,” reads a China National Nuclear Corporation press release.
Following these announcements, the China National Space Administration gave full state approval for the next three phase-4 lunar missions.