An article on the Telegraph news website from February of this year noted a chill in the relationship between Russia and the United States, and hinted at the possibility of a new Cold War in space. Adrian Blomfield’s piece “Russia sees moon plot in NASA plans” reports that Russian officials claim their nation’s offers the the United States to participate in a cooperative Moon effort have been rebuffed.
Because. The ice on the Moon is better.
And why is that?
Though it would be easy to imagine a customer of a Star Wars cantina making this odd comment (in subtitles), the real reason is that, assuming there is any ice there, it should be, unlike earthly ice, chock-full of an isotope of helium called helium 3.
A plentiful supply of helium 3 — rare on Earth, but abundant in space — combined with an as-yet unperfected nuclear fusion technology, could potentially provide an efficient source of power and a meaningful, clean alternative to fossil fuels for an energy-hungry Earth.
The Russian claim is that the United States wants to control it.
From the article:
… many officials in Moscow’s space programme believe Washington’s lunar agenda is driven by a desire to monopolise helium-3 mining. They allege that President Bush has moved helium-3 experts into key positions on NASA’s advisory council.
The plot, says Erik Galimov, an academic with the Russian Academy of Sciences, would “enable the US to establish its control of the energy market 20 years from now and put the rest of the world on its knees as hydrocarbons run out.”
Looking below the surface, these comments unhappily echo the empty, belligerent accusations of Soviet-era propaganda rhetoric.
If I were Russian, I would not be proud of that part of my Soviet heritage.
The lynch pin to this argument is the achievement of a viable nuclear fusion reactor. Though there have been notable breakthroughs in nuclear fusion research, opinions differ as to when a working commercial thermonuclear reactor may be available. The reality is that it is still not possible, and there is no way to predict when it will be.
And, of course: is there really ice on the Moon?
Like most of the news-bombarded western world, I heard of the surprising discovery of what was interpreted as water ice at the Lunar poles by the Navy’s Clementine orbiter. For anyone with any interest in space flight, the possibilities where obvious — a supply on hand of water and oxygen for colonists, and hydrogen to power rockets returning to Earth. Or going elsewhere.
Then the radio astronomy crowd took the candy out of our mouths when they decided the assumptions underlying the Clementine detection methods were not valid.
This was followed by the Lunar Prospector, which was followed by more challenges to the assumptions used in another detection methodology.
(And back … and forth. And back … and forth.)
It almost seems as if the scientific community would only agree on the presence of lunar ice if it were to land on the White House lawn.
(Oh, sorry … I thinking of something else.)
An excellent, though somewhat technical discussion of these issues is given in planetary scientist Paul Spudis’ Space Review article “Ice on the Moon.”
His answer? A definite maybe.
This unresolved argument about the presence or non-presence of lunar ice, against a backdrop of growing world tensions due to the clean energy it may offer, is a hauntingly familiar theme to David S. Michaels and me. Two of the three storylines of our novel Red Moon are set in the near future of 2019, and a dispute over the presence of lunar ice — and the desire to control the use of any existing helium 3 as an energy source — figure in these storylines prominently.
(Ehhhh … Let’s not get carried away.)
Even though Red Moon is a work of fiction, the search for a plausible “mother lode” of ice on the Moon demanded by our story posed an interesting problem, largely because of where we wanted our viewpoint characters to look for it.
The accepted wisdom about the best place to find ice on the Moon is that it would be at the poles, in the floors of craters where sunlight can never reach. Where we wanted it, though, was at about 13 degrees north latitude — a mere 200 miles north of the lunar equator — in what is known as Mare Crisium, the Sea of Crisis.
No shadowy crater floors there.
In order to attain the “willing suspension of disbelief” in the part of readers (some of which may be the aerospace professionals who work in the business that inspired us in the first place), we had to do our homework. Not even beginning to know know how to start when it came to lunar and planetary geology (they call it “astrogeology”), we actually did something better. Dave went to an expert.
Dave is a member of the “Friends and Partners in Space” mailing list, and through this list he has developed contacts with a number of experts in aerospace. And he found just the person we needed: Dr. David M. Harland.
Dr. Harland, who holds his Doctorate in Computer Science and a Bachelors in Astronomy, has become arguably one of the leading — if not the leading — space historian in the world. He is the author of a significant stack of books (showcased here by his cat, half-way down the page) including Exploring the Moon: The Apollo Expeditions and Jupiter Odyssey: NASA’s Galileo Mission. Beyond assisting us with this lunar geology problem, Dr. Harland read early drafts of Red Moon and provided essential guidance and correction, particularly about the lunar environment and geology.
In the novel, Dave blended Dr. Harland’s solution in with some important background story about the commander of the 2019 moon mission, geologist and rookie astronaut Janet Luckman, as she reflects for a quiet moment in the cabin of the Prometheus spacecraft, on the surface of the Moon:
She slid into the command chair and the looked through the Plexiglas dome at the pockmarked Sea of Crises, and up to the shimmering Earth suspended in the blackness above. The Americas lay on the eastern limb, remarkably free of cloud cover. She could make out the narrow brown strip of Baja California and the Texas panhandle, delineated by the ribbon of the Rio Grande. Must be hot down there. It got hotter every year.
Everyone and everything she’d ever known was on that little ball–Mom back in Lindsay, brothers Denny in Seattle and Danny in El Paso, her father’s ashes scattered over the desert that had reclaimed his beloved orchards.
At least there had been something tangible left of her father, something to give back to the Earth he’d spent so much of his life nurturing. The same couldn’t be said about Luckman’s husband, Marcus. His grave marker at Arlington had nothing beneath it.
She’d met Marcus when she was at UC Davis, right after he’d graduated from Annapolis. Her older brother Denny had introduced them; he and Marcus had been classmates, best buddies. What the hell, she’d always been a sucker for a man in uniform, especially a tall, blond, tan aviator with deep dimples, a steely gaze, and a dazzling smile. Marcus was like Lochinvar come from the west; a born flier, third generation Navy, but he sought something beyond the wild blue. He yearned to be an astronaut, and spent his spare time studying the music of the spheres.
Luckman hadn’t been able to fathom that side of him.
She felt rooted to the suffering earth. Then came that moment when Marcus took her to Milo Jefferson’s guest lecture at UC Davis–was it eleven years ago? She’d been majoring in agricultural science, so focused on soil, seed, and water that she might as well have been wearing blinders. Jefferson’s presentation ripped the blinders off, exposed her to a possibility she’d never imagined–the solution to the creeping catastrophe engulfing Earth could be found up there.
His talk had been accompanied by hypnotic visuals projected on a big screen. A rogue comet emerged from deep space, looped close around the Sun, grazed Earth, and fell into orbit around the Moon. Tidal forces cracked the comet in two–a rocky chunk, and one composed of primordial water ice. The two chunks spiraled closer. The icy chunk hit first on the Moon’s night side with a big “splut,” its ice flashing to steam, freezing immediately and falling back to the surface as a thick layer of heavy ice crystals. The rocky fragment impacted moments later about twelve klicks away, forming the big crater Picard, burying the ice deposit beneath a blanket of ejected moondust and rock.
The images ended with a painting of a space-suited astronaut, arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, rising on a column of light. “We have within our grasp the answer to all the world’s energy needs,” Jefferson had said. “We can break mankind’s fatal addiction to fossil fuels and allow the Earth a chance to heal, to become fruitful again. All we have to do is reach out and accept the gift of the heavens.”
It had hit her with blinding clarity. Earth and space were one, indivisible, symbiotic, like seed and soil. Epiphany was too weak a word for what Luckman had experienced that day. Nothing had been the same since.
Her academic career took a U-turn right then. She chose planetary geology as her major, transferred from UC Davis to Berkeley to study under master Milo himself. She turned out to be a goddamned prodigy, made a name for herself immediately by identifying the rare earth element niobium in a pile of old spectrometer data from Lunar Prospector.
Marcus was stationed at Moffet Field in Sunnyvale, just across the bay and down Highway 101 from Berkeley. She happily drove down on weekends, spent nights helping Marcus bone up on spacecraft engineering and orbital mechanics. She sucked it up like a sponge.
The sex was pretty intense, too. Marcus called her “lover girl.” It was maybe the only time in her life when she really felt like a sexual being, a womanly woman.
They married while she was pursuing her doctorate, a wonderful Navy wedding, officers in dress uniform making an archway of swords. Marcus got promoted to commander, took charge of a big P-5V Pegasus sub hunter with an aircrew of fourteen. He’d put his astronaut application in to NASA, dared her to do the same. She did. Their friends joked about them moving into a nice bungalow on Mars and raising little ETs. NASA was going through its lean years and wasn’t hiring. Still, the hope was there, and life was good. People called them the lucky Luckmans.
It ended four years ago, March 29, 2015. US Naval forces had been placed on high alert after the Chinese invasion of Mongolia. She hadn’t been too worried. Marcus had made it through Gulf War II without a scratch, and this seemed a much less serious situation. Marcus and his crew had gone up to relieve another Pegasus on patrol in heavy overcast. The two planes collided. Fishing boats off Monterey reported a big flash in the sky, wreckage raining down. Twenty-eight men died. Marcus’ body was never recovered.
The day after the collision, Luckman received an email from NASA addressed to Marcus, accepting his application for astronaut training. Project Prometheus was underway; NASA was on the move again. Her own acceptance came a week later.
On her first moonwalk, Luckman reverently placed Marcus’ aviator wings on the regolith at the base of the UN flag. She’d planned a whole speech. She said simply, “Marcus, we made it.”
It should be noted that the naked lunar surface itself, constantly subjected to the helium 3-rich solar wind, is in and of itself a potential source of helium 3. Extracting it, though, would require scraping up and processing vast amounts of the top few inches of lunar regolith (soil). Lunar ice deposits, pound for pound, would be a far more cost-effective source.
Though taking a step back, maybe a more logical alternative would be to get the ice directly from where it came from in the first place, from comets, rather than going to the trouble of isolating and extracting it from wherever it may be hiding on the Moon. Barring some “Mother Lode” scenario as we depicted in Red Moon, extracting helium 3 from ice in comets might in fact be far cheaper.
The real bottom line is that even if America — or Russia — or China — sought to seize the Moon for itself, no nation could secure a stranglehold on all sources of helium 3.
So, Erik Galimov, academic with the Russian Academy of Sciences and exposer of American conspiracies … you can blow your evil American helium 3 plot into a trial balloon and go float it somewhere else.
© 2007, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.
- Reposted from Daniel Brenton’s Weblog, The Odd Little Universe of Daniel Brenton