The first man to walk on the moon might have been American, but the first man to mine the great rock in the sky for its fabled cheese, might well be Chinese.
The International Space Station (ISS) is a virtual United Nations of outer space, with astronauts from large economies like the US, Russia and Japan represented, and not-so-large economies like South Africa, Brazil, The Netherlands and Malaysia. There is one exception though; Chinese astronauts, interestingly, have been banned from the ISS due to a 2011 law prohibiting American and Chinese cooperation on space programs because of “national security.”
This might explain why it has been building its own station, which it plans to complete by 2022 – about the same time that funding runs out for ISS. This might possibly leave China with the only functioning permanent outpost in space. Chinese astronaut Commander Nie Haisheng – who leads the Chinese manned space mission- has noted that foreign astronauts will still be welcome to visit the Chinese space station.
As US space exploration grinds to a halt, Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, notes that the Chinese space program has only picked up steam. “It would cost the US $140 billion for a true moon and Mars exploration mission but sticker shock would kill it instantly,” she says. “In terms of perception, America has already ceded its leadership in exploration to China.”
In 2013, China became the third country to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon, and in 2014, it sent a probe to orbit the moon and return. Its future plans are far more grandiose: in 2018 it plans on being the first to land a probe on the dark side of the moon – an unexplored region where one of the largest known impact craters in the Solar System resides.
Eventually, China plans on landing its citizens on the moon. That’s a lot of focus on the moon, and it may not solely be why it is a good next step for the Chinese space program – that’s the assertion of Yale University lecturer Vikram Mansharamani.
He notes that the moon, which lacks our Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic field, has been bombarded by solar winds for billions of years, causing it to become particularly rich in helium-3 isotope, a potentially clean non-radioactive fusion fuel. Estimates suggest that the moon has enough helium-3 to provide our energy requirements for 10,000 years – though researchers believe that the tech required to use the fuel is still decades from becoming a reality.
Fabrizio Bozzato, a doctoral candidate at the University of Tamkan in Taiwan, pointed out that helium-3 could be harvested by heating lunar dust to 600 degrees centigrade, and then transported back to Earth. He believes that the gas is worth 3 billion dollars a tonne, and wrote:
“China appears determined to make [lunar mining] a reality of tomorrow. China maintains its lunar mining would be for the benefit of all humanity. However, given the absence of willful competitors, it is also speculated that the Chinese intend to establish a helium 3 monopoly.”
In 2014, Professor Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, also expressed interest in the moon’s helium-3. He noted that the moon is “so rich” in helium 3, that this could “solve humanity’s energy demand for around 10,000 years at least.”
The moon is also rich in rare earth metals that are used in modern day electronics. China already supplies 90% of the world’s rare earth metals.
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