‘Conquering’ the Moon: a race for Helium-3


Richard Moore

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Russia sees moon plot in Nasa plans
By Adrian Blomfield in Moscow
Last Updated: 1:53am BST 02/05/2007

Mankind's second race for the moon took on a distinctly Cold War feel yesterday 
when the Russian space agency accused its old rival Nasa of rejecting a proposal
for joint lunar exploration.

The claim comes amid suspicion in Moscow that the United States is seeking to 
deny Russia access to an isotope in abundance under the moon's surface that many
believe could replace fossil fuels and even end the threat of global warming.

A new era of international co-operation in space supposedly dawned after the 
United States, Russia and other powers declared their intention to send humans 
to the moon for the first time since 1972.

But while Nasa has lobbied for support from Britain and the European Space 
Agency, Russia claims its offers have been rebuffed.

Yesterday Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia's Federal Space Agency Roscosmos,
said: "We are ready to co-operate but for some reason the United States has 
announced that it will carry out the programme itself. Strange as it is, the 
United States is short of experts to implement the programme."

Nasa announced in December that it was planning to build an international base 
camp on one of the Moon's poles, permanently staffing it by 2024. Russia's space
rocket manufacturer Energia revealed an even more ambitious programme last 
August, saying it would build a permanent Moon base by 2015.


While the Americans have either been coy or dismissive on the subject, Russia 
openly says the main purpose of its lunar programme is the industrial extraction
of helium-3.

Dismissed by critics as a 21st-century equivalent of the medieval alchemist's 
fruitless quest to turn lead into gold, some scientists say helium-3 could be 
the answer to the world's energy woes.

A non-radioactive isotope of helium, helium-3 is a proven and potent fuel for 
nuclear fusion - so potent that just six metric tons would supply Britain with 
enough energy for a year.

As helium-3 is non-polluting and is so effective in such tiny quantities, many 
countries are taking it very seriously. Germany, India and China, which will 
launch a lunar probe to research extraction techniques in September, are all 
studying ways to mine the isotope.

"Whoever conquers the moon first will be the first to benefit," said Ouyang 
Ziyuan, the chief scientist of China's lunar programme.

Energia says it will start "industrial scale delivery" of helium-3, transported 
by cargo space ships via the International Space Station, no later than 2020. 
Gazprom, the state-owned energy giant directly controlled by the Kremlin, is 
said to be strongly supportive of the project.

The United States has appeared much more cautious, not least because scientists 
are yet to discover the secrets of large scale nuclear fusion. Commercial fusion
reactors look unlikely to come on line before the second half of this century.

But many officials in Moscow's space programme believe Washington's lunar agenda
is driven by a desire to monopolise helium-3 mining. They allege that President 
Bush has moved helium-3 experts into key positions on Nasa's advisory council.

The plot, says Erik Galimov, an academic with the Russian Academy of Sciences, 
would "enable the US to establish its control of the energy market 20 years from
now and put the rest of the world on its knees as hydrocarbons run out."

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