Little Brother Knows Best

The Moon may hold the promise of unlimited safe energy on Earth and beyond. 

We should all pay more attention to our little siblings. In my experience, they’re usually quieter, less imposing and harder to read but if you give them a chance, they might surprise you. In fact, if you pay attention for once, they might just have all the answers to your biggest problems. It’s true. By the way, this article is completely objective and in no way influenced or biased by the fact that I myself am a little brother. I promise.

If you have a sibling, you know how big a role they play in our lives. My brother and I always joke that if we didn’t have each other, we wouldn’t have made it out of adolescence intact. Granted, we were more often than not the cause of each other’s close-calls, but like Will and Carlton, we somehow came through for one another. So we made it to adolescence, all the while planning to write the 90s sitcom that was our lives.

You can't cage a Carlton
You can’t cage a Carlton

So if siblings are so important why do we earthlings consistently ignore our closest celestial sibling? Why do we ignore our moon? It wasn’t always that way. It took us only twelve years after launching the first satellite into space to put men there in 1969. Then we successfully sent and returned another six landing parties in the following three years. But since 1972 we humans have kept our distance, relegating lunar operations to orbital missions and computerized rovers. Like a game of hide-and-seek where big brother “forgets” to tell little brother he stopped looking for him, the moon is still waiting.

Why wouldn’t we want to go back? Especially if it gains us unlimited energy? It turns out recent experiments in the field of nuclear energy as well as accomplishments by the Chinese space program’s Chang’e missions may be inching us back towards little brother.

The Nuclear Family

In today’s day and age, nuclear gets a bad rep. Even though generating electricity through nuclear power has serious benefits over burning fossil fuels like much greater efficiency, the concern over nuclear weapons, radioactive waste, and high-profile failures at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island are not easy to forget. Sort of like when little brother wrecks your car and it’s on. Much of the opposition however, is in response to nuclear fission, a process used in nuclear plants today where environmental harm and the potential for meltdown is ever-present. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, has the potential to do what fission does, only cleaner, more efficient, and without the possibility of catastrophe.

Currently, fusion is a work in progress. The process and method are scientifically proven but the sheer amount of heat and power that is required outpaces the energy produced by the reaction. In short, fusion is unsustainable and inefficient as a commercial energy source, but scientists are working on this in a number of ways, one of which is to use a different kind of atom as fuel for the reaction. Enter helium-3.

not an accurate depiction of fusion
Not an accurate depiction of fusion

Helium-3 (He-3) is an isotope of helium-4, the stuff we inhale from balloons at parties to make us sound like Michael Jackson in the 70s . He-3 is quite different from today’s fusion fuels because it reacts in such a way that its by-products are less radioactive than traditional fusion and fission. This means that he-3 fusion reactions theoretically have the capacity to produce vast amounts of clean energy with a negligible amount of waste. While preliminary experiments have yet to produce more energy than they consume, no lab outside of Professor Kulcinski at the University of Wisconsin are working with he-3. Why? Because he-3 is incredibly rare on this planet.

Ironically, he-3 is produced on Earth as a by-product of radioactive decay. The only other really abundant source of he-3 we know of comes from solar wind constantly emitted by the sun into the galaxy. However, Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field block it from hitting our planet. So close yet so far. A possible key to safe, clean and abundant energy is staring us right in the face but we can’t even reach out to experiment with it to find out if it really works.

But wait, we know of a place not too far away from Earth where there is no atmosphere and no magnetic field – a place that has not only continually bathed in he-3 for billions of years, but a place to which we’re intimately connected. Little brother, we’ve missed you.

Family Reunions are Hard

Current estimates place the amount of he-3 on and just under the lunar surface at around 1.1 million tons. Professor Kulcinski and his team hypothesize that about one hundred tons of he-3 could theoretically be used to supply the entire world’s energy needs. That means that if a he-3 fusion reaction can successfully produce net energy, our moon potentially holds the keys to thousands of years of continuous, clean energy.

So what are we waiting for? Apparently it’s not that simple. Although the U.S. space program has undertaken plans to go back to the moon and on to Mars after that, funding is always the biggest hurdle. Politics dictates funding, and the outside chance that lunar he-3 can be successfully mined, transported back to Earth, and experimented with until commercial efficiency is attained seems to be an plan for which only a small minority of people in Washington have the patience. However, not everyone is willing to put he-3 on the backburner.

In the last eight years, China’s space program has been bold, progressive, fast-paced and most importantly, wildly successful. Since 2007, The People’s Republic has managed to soar to the front of the lunar race with the Chang’e lunar program, which thus far has completed three lunar orbiting missions and is currently operating an active lunar rover. What is most important about these missions is that China has made it no secret that their ultimate effort is to secure he-3 as a future fuel source.

Just last fall, China’s Chang’e-5 T1 unmanned test capsule returned safely to Earth after conducting a weeklong flight test around the moon. The object of the mission was to test various systems that will be included on the next Chang’e-5 mission (scheduled for 2017), the goal of which is to bring back a lunar sample for study and experimentation. If the Chinese succeed in harvesting an ample amount of he-3, it could boost their efforts to set up a permanent base of operations in order to ferry more he-3 for continuous experimentation until net positive output is achieved.

Behind every visor, Sam Bell.
Behind every visor, Sam Bell.

What does this mean for our future? Well, it could mean nothing. That’s right – even if China can succeed in all of its lunar endeavors, he-3 could still turn out to be a bust for fusion and all that investment could be for naught. We could all go back to ignoring little brother like normal and go on with our daily lives – you know, these golden years where we consume finite resources, kill each other for access to them, and then enter the Thunderdome when the energy runs out. However, there is that glimmer of hope that the he-3 really is up there, that we really can extract it, and that we figure out a way to use it to its fullest capacity. I’m getting all warm and fuzzy inside just thinking about it.

But before we get lost in our utopia of energy abundance, lets take a minute to assume the worst of an incredible situation. Whoever pulls little brother under their wing is going to get all the benefits that come with his company, and will literally have unlimited power to do with it what they please. The potential for misuse is amazing. Let’s forget for a moment the fact that he-3 fusion is estimated to be able to create a nuclear explosion 1.5 times greater than anything we’ve seen before. It’s dangerous enough that one nation could unilaterally control the flow of energy into and around our planet. That is why, whether or not he-3 is eventually economically feasible, those who have the power and the know how to go after it have the duty to do so.

When Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon, he famously qualified his reasoning by saying that we choose to do these things because they are hard. We knew nothing about the moon and that was why we went. It was to feed our human nature to explore and travel – to push the boundaries of what was possible so that we could one day push further. All right, maybe it had just a little bit to do with the fact that the Soviets were going and we didn’t want to be stuck on the wrong end of a space nuke, but either way we boldly accepted the challenge.

As this space race gets closer to the finish line, nations with a vested interest in their future should seriously consider how they want to run it. Is it really the best idea to sit on the sidelines and hope the he-3 breakthrough never materializes? Or might it be nobler to thrust into the foray with the full intention of winning that, which is so improbable. If not for the prize of energy abundance or for protection from persecution, we should do it in the spirit of human progress. We are well on our way to a serious energy issue at some point in our future and little brother is calling – we deserve to know if he has an answer.

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