The Chinese Chang’e 5 mission has returned to Earth with a new mineral retrieved from the Moon’s surface. Called Changesite-(Y), the transparent crystal could contain helium-3, an isotype with a wide range of technological uses.
Changesite-(Y) is exceedingly tiny, about one-tenth the size of a human hair, and has been described by Chinese news outlet Xinhau as a “kind-of colorless transparent columnar crystal.” Even in such a small sample, though, the presence of helium-3 is potentially world-altering. As more and more areas struggle to produce large amounts of power quickly and efficiently, helium-3 has been proposed as a fuel source for fusion reactors. Unlike tritium and deuterium, isotopes of hydrogen, helium-3 doesn’t create radioactive neutrons. However, with current technology, it is difficult to create controlled fusion reactions with it, and it is a relatively rare isotope on Earth, which has stalled any further research into its use as a fuel.
An ongoing series of Chinese-led lunar missions could change all of that. With long-term plans to establish a lunar base focused on researching water deposits on the Moon, this successful retrieval of helium-3 could also be incorporated into future research goals.
The US is not standing idly by either. By the end of next year, they intend to launch two probes to the surface of the moon to prove the efficacy of the Commercial Lunar Payload Systems (CLPS) program that is pairing private companies with NASA to begin lunar exploration in earnest. NASA also still plans to send Artemis 2 and a crew of four astronauts, around the Moon in 2024, and to land the first astronauts on the lunar surface since the mission of Apollo 17 in 1972 some time after that.
The prospect of clean energy is wildly exciting, but its important to keep expectations reasonable. The development of new technology to work with these isotopes is a slow and often arduous process, often obstructed by special interest groups, sabre-rattling nationalism, and inter-governmental paranoia. Still, these first steps are promising and could take us one step closer to a brighter, less radioactive, future.
And honestly, just makes us want to rewatch “For All Mankind” on AppleTV+ again.