From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


To Reach for the Moon

China’s lunar program is about more than national pride. Try this: a
limitless supply of clean, safe energy.

By Melinda Liu and Mary Carmichael

Feb. 12, 2007 – Western analysts still can’t say what Beijing was
thinking when it shot down one of its aging weather satellites. True,
the recent test was a fine show of marksmanship, destroying a
refrigerator-size target sailing at orbital speed 500 miles up (as
high as U.S. spy satellites). But was it worth risking a new arms
race? Was it even worth the mess it caused? The Union of Concerned
Scientists says the test left some 2 million pieces of shrapnel in
orbit, each one a threat to any country’s passing spacecraft. That’s
why Washington and Moscow gave up such tests decades ago: the space
lanes are already littered with too much potentially lethal debris.

The drifting wreckage is a danger not only to other countries’
spacecraft but to China’s own ambitions for the heavens-which go far
beyond blinding the U.S. military. Beijing put its first man into
orbit less than four years ago. Today the Chinese are reaching for the
moon. The first step, the launching of an unmanned lunar orbiter, is
tentatively scheduled for April 17. A three-man mission will orbit the
Earth later this year, and a spacewalk is planned for next year. Two
years after that, the plan is to put down a lunar rover, followed in
2020 by a craft that will collect lunar samples and bring them home.
Eventually Beijing wants to put people on the moon, although the
target date remains undisclosed. “Their timetable is absolutely
realistic,” says Jim Benson, president of SpaceDev, a private space-
exploration company in Poway, Calif. “Some of it actually seems a
little conservative.”

National pride is a big force behind China’s moon program, but not the
only one. The Chinese are aiming to do more than “just set up a flag
or pick up a piece of rock,” says Ye Zili of China’s Space Science
Society. What are they after? A limitless source of clean, safe energy
to feed their voracious economy. The stable isotope helium 3 (3He), a
potential fuel for nuclear fusion, was first found in moon rocks
brought back by the Apollo missions. It is one constituent of the
“solar wind” constantly given off by the Sun. The stuff bounces off
Earth’s magnetic field, but the moon has no magnetic field, and its
surface has been soaking up 3He for billions of years. If you could
dig it up and put it into a fusion reactor you would get ordinary
helium 4 (as in balloons), ordinary hydrogen (as in H2O) and an
abundance of radioactivity-free energy. According to Gerald Kulcinski,
director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of
Wisconsin at Madison, a mere 40 tons would be roughly enough to serve
America’s electrical needs for a year.

Or so the theory goes. The April mission is supposed to learn more
about the distribution of 3He on the lunar surface. If significant
deposits are found, China’s engineers still need to design the world’s
first lunar mining machines and send them up-while the rest of us
shrink in horror at the thought of strip mines on the moon. And
meanwhile someone will have to develop a practical reactor. Kulcinski
operates what he believes to be the only working model ever built, a
device about the size of a basketball that sucks up far more energy
than it produces. “We’re not even close to breaking even,” he says.
What would that require? “It couldn’t happen for less than tens of
millions of dollars and at least 10 to 20 years,” he says.

But don’t count the Chinese out. “When you have a communist regime in
a capitalist network, you have huge amounts of cash and the ability to
direct it,” says Lawrence Taylor, a director of the University of
Tennessee’s Planetary Geosciences Institute in Knoxville. “They could
run away with this.” And if they fail? At least they will have walked
on the moon.