Will the future flow on the power of the Moon? The Indian Space Agency bet on yes.

Anurag Kotoky

The Indian space program wants to go where no nation has gone before – to the south side of the moon. And once it gets there, it will study the potential for extracting nuclear power sources without waste that could be worth billions of dollars.

NASA’s national equivalent will launch a rover in October to explore pristine territory on the lunar surface and analyze crust samples for signs of water and helium-3. This isotope is limited on Earth, and so rich on the Moon that it could theoretically meet global energy needs for 250 years if used.

Industrial Week 30749 He 3 Atom
The atomic structure of helium-3 may look like a dead clown, but it can mean serious money for someone who can take it from the moon.

“Countries that have the capacity to bring that source from the Moon to Earth will dictate the process,” said K. Sivan, president of the Indian Space Research Organization. “I don’t want to be just a part of them, I want to lead them.”

The mission would solidify India’s place among a fleet of explorers racing to the Moon, Mars and beyond for scientific, commercial or military gain. The governments of the US, China, India, Japan and Russia are competing with startup companies and billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson to launch satellites, robotic landings, astronauts and tourists into space.

The rover’s landing is one step in a planned series for ISRO that involves putting a space station into orbit and, potentially, an Indian crew on the Moon. The government has not yet set a time frame.

“We are ready and waiting,” said Sivan, an aeronautical engineer who joined ISRO in 1982. “We have equipped ourselves to take over this program.”

China is the only country to put a lander and rover on the moon this month with its Chang’e 3 mission in 2013. The country plans to return later this year by sending a probe to an unexplored far side.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump signed a directive calling for the astronauts to return to the moon, and NASA’s fiscal year budget that proposed $ 19 billion calls for the launch of a lunar orbiter in the early 2020s.

ISRO’s estimated budget is less than a tenth of that – about $ 1.7 billion – but achieving cheap feats has been a hallmark of the agency since the 1960s. The upcoming mission will cost about $ 125 million – or less than a quarter of last year’s fee from co-founder Snap Inc. Evan Spiegel, the top CEO of a publicly traded company, according to the Bloomberg Pay Index.

This will not be India’s first mission on the moon. The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, launched in October 2008, completed more than 3,400 orbits and launched a probe that first detected water molecules on the surface.

The upcoming launch of the Chandrayaan-2 includes an orbiter, a lander and a rectangular rover. The six-wheeled vehicle, powered by solar energy, will collect information for at least 14 days and cover an area within a radius of 400 meters.

Rover will send the images to the lender, and the lender will return them back to ISRO for analysis.

The primary goal, however, is to search for helium-3 deposits. Solar winds have bombarded the moon with huge amounts of helium-3 because it is not protected by a magnetic field like Earth.

The presence of helium-3 has been confirmed in lunar samples returned by the Apollo missions, and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, a geologist who walked on the moon in December 1972, is a passionate proponent of extracting helium-3.

“It is thought that this isotope could provide safer nuclear energy in the fusion reactor because it is not radioactive and would not produce hazardous waste products,” the European Space Agency said.

Industryweek 30747 Moon Sam RockwellIMDB / Sony Pictures
Mining helium-3 was the reason for Sam Rockwell’s lonely mission in the 2009 film Moon.

It is estimated that 1 million metric tons of helium-3 are implanted on the Moon, although only about a quarter of that could realistically be brought to Earth, said Gerald Kulcinski, director of the Institute of Fusion Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former member of NASA’s advisory board. council.

That is still enough to meet current global energy needs for at least two, and maybe even five centuries, Kulcinski said. He estimated the value of helium-3 at about $ 5 billion per ton, which means that 250,000 tons would be worth billions of dollars.

There are certainly a number of obstacles that need to be overcome before the material can be used – including the logistics of collection and delivery back to Earth and the construction of fusion power plants to convert the material into energy. These costs would be stratospheric.

“If this can be addressed, India should be part of that effort,” said Lydia Powell, who heads the Resource Management Center at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. “If the cost makes sense, he will become a player who changes the game, no doubt about it.”

Besides, it won’t be easy to dig up the moon. Only the United States and Luxembourg have enacted laws that allow commercial entities to adhere to what they have taken out of space, said David Todd, head of space facilities in Northampton, the headquarters of England, Seradata Ltd.

“In the end, it will be like fishing at sea in international waters,” Todd said. “Although the nation state cannot hold international waters, the fish becomes the property of its fishermen once caught.”

The Indian government is responding to the influx of commercial firms into space by drafting laws regulating satellite launches, company registration and liability, said GV Anand Bhushan, a Chennai-based partner at law firm Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. It does not cover lunar exploitation.

Yet the only space universe in the country is not entirely on board with the transformation of the Moon into a business place.

Rakesh Sharma, who spent nearly eight days on a Russian spacecraft in 1984, said states and private companies should instead work together to develop human colonies elsewhere as the Earth runs out of resources and faces potential disasters like asteroid attacks. .

“You can’t go to the moon and draw boundaries,” Sharma said. “I want India to show that we are capable of using space technology for the good of people.”