China poised to take pole position in space race by using lunar rocks for nuclear fuel

Space Force chief warns of China's spacefaring capabilities

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The country’s nuclear scientists are now studying Moon rock samples retrieved by the Chang’e 5 mission. The Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology are investigating 50-milligram rock which is thought to contain an isotope called helium-3, which may one day provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor. It isn’t radioactive, and being incredibly rare on Earth, helium-3 is instead thought to be abundant on the moon.

Cracking the code to nuclear fusion, the process that takes place inside the Sun which harnesses its power has long been the source of scientific curiosity and once discovered, could be used to create limitless clean energy.

The Chinese officials that have been tasked with nuclear fusion projects still say it could be decades before we see nuclear fusion in action.

The theory that the Moon could have abundant reserves of helium-3 can be traced back several decades.

In 1986, scientists at the University of Wisconsin estimated that lunar soil could contain a million tons of the isotope, also known as He3.

Being a by-product of the sun’s intense heat, it is carried through the solar system by solar winds.

The atom is believed to be embedded on the Moon’s regolith—the blanket of loose deposits that cover the lunar surface.

But China’s attempts to study helium-3 are still at an early stage.

Joseph Michalski, deputy director of the University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory for Space Research, said: “There’s no element of the operation that’s been figured out yet.

“It’s like if someone offered you a suitcase stuffed with $5 million, but it’ll cost $10million (£7.5million) to pick it up.”

But in the future, machines that vacuum up the top layer of the moon’s surface might come into play.

Mr Michalski said that these could be used to both address Earth’s energy needs or to power moon bases for future missions.

But after helium-3 can be contained, another challenge will be generating enough heat in a short amount of time to create the appropriate reaction, a process that researchers have been struggling to crack for decades.

But China’s helium-3 study as a result of the lunar mission seems to be making good ground.

Li Ziying, the head of the Beijing institute, told state-owned China Central Television in August: “The research is not only of great value for the potential exploitation of such nuclear energy resources on the moon in the future.”

It is also of “great significance for the scientific study of the moon itself and its relationship with the Earth.”

While researchers in the US. and other nations have studied the isotope that China is currently investigating in the piece of Moon rock, China’s mission is also part of a plan to become the dominant global power in space.

China has already been making huge steps in the Cosmos, from being the first nation to land on the far side of the moon in 2019, to manoeuvring a rover across Mars and constructing building its own space station this year, a new space race seems to be taking place.

Namrata Goswami, co-author of “Scramble for the Skies”, said: “China’s Moon program is the most important and central component of its entire space strategy.

“All of these milestones help the country come closer to fulfilling Mr. Xi’s space dream.”

The samples of volcanic rock they analysed from the Change’5 mission are the youngest lunar samples found and date back two billion years.

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The study of the rocks has revealed how lunar composition and water content changed over time and has brought new insights into the thermal and chemical evolution of the Moon.

Beijing has also been striking more global alliances in space projects.

In March, China announced a deal with Russia’s space agency to develop a joint Moon base.

James Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University, said: “China is now building the Silk Road to space.”

China is also planning a series of unmanned missions, including sending robots to the Moon.

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