This article originally appeared on Motherboard.
On Monday, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) announced the Chandrayaan-2 mission, which will send an explorer to the south side of the moon later this year. It will be India's second lunar mission and the first time a country visits the southern side of the moon. The ISRO's six-wheel rover will analyze the lunar crust for traces of water and helium-3, an isotope that is essential for developing the fusion energy on Earth.
The joke among nuclear physicists is that the fusion energy is always at 30 years, but when I get here, India wants to be the one that provides the fuel.
"The countries that have the ability to bring that source of the moon to Earth will dictate the process," Kailasavadivoo Sivan, president of ISRO, told Bloomberg. "I do not want to be just part of them, I want to lead them."
Nuclear fusion is the same process that feeds the sun and consists of joining hydrogen atoms to produce helium, which releases a ton of energy in the process. If you can capture this fusion energy, it would effectively be an unlimited source of energy on Earth. Unfortunately, building a nuclear fusion reactor, also known as a "star in a jar", has proven to be incredibly difficult.
Today, most fusion reactors use a combination of hydrogen isotopes called deuterium and tritium as a nuclear fuel. Although techniques for instigating fusion differ, one of the most successful approaches is a deuterium / tritium fuel cell that receives a high dose of concentrated energy. This causes the fuel cell to become a plasma that is compressed with magnetic fields (or liquid metal) to cause the nuclei to fuse and release a lot of energy. So far, no laboratory has been able to extract more energy from this reaction than it took to do so, which is required to create a scalable energy fusion power plant.
A related problem has to do with the by-product of the fusion of deuterium and tritium: high-energy neutrons that exit the nucleus of these isotopes during the fusion process. These so-called "fast" neutrons are the source of energy that must be harvested in a fusion reactor, but they are remarkably difficult to contain. Neutrons react more with the walls of nuclear reactors than with protons, which means they have to be replaced more frequently. Also, they are not charged particles, so they are more difficult to manipulate with electric and magnetic fields.
This is where helium-3 comes in. Extracting the tritium from the equation and using a mixture of deuterium and helium-3, the fusion process produces a proton, instead of a neutron. This results in less energy waste and easier containment since the protons are charged particles, which facilitates the direct collection of energy from the fusion reaction by manipulating the protons with electric and magnetic fields. In short, adding helium-3 to the mix would make the fusion reactors non-radioactive and incredibly more efficient.
Work on helium-3 fusion has been slow because it's very rare on Earth, but the initial results have been incredibly promising. Last year, for example, MIT researchers increased the efficiency of a fusion reaction by an order of magnitude after adding small amounts of helium-3 to a fuel cell that contained hydrogen and deuterium. Another investigation that uses two isotopes of helium-3 instead of a mixture of deuterium-helium-3 has also shown to be remarkably efficient in small reactors.
Among the many triumphs of the NASA Apollo missions in the 60s and 70s was confirming that the mole surface contained a large amount of helium-3 because the moon has no atmosphere to repel the material. In fact, the amount of energy that can be created using all helium-3 stored on the moon is more than 10 times the amount of energy stored in all fossil fuels on Earth. As the prospect of fusion energy seems increasingly realistic, it has launched an international race to the moon to be the first to extract this valuable resource from the lunar surface.
Moon Express, which became the first private company to receive permission from the US government. UU It will launch an object beyond Earth's orbit last year and has set its sights on the moon for the extraction of helium 3. In 2016, China also announced its intention to put an explorer on the moon to search for helium extraction locations. 3. Now, India has announced its intention to join the race to harvest what could become one of the most valuable sources of energy ever discovered.
In 2013, China became the first country to land a ship on the Moon in almost 40 years. He has plans to send a lunar rover named Chang 5 to the moon next year that will bring lunar samples to Earth, the first step in his helium-3 mining ambitions. If India has its way, however, it will already have an explorer on the lunar surface waiting to greet the Chinese mission.