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China’s Chang’e-5 lunar mission success opens the door for a new moon race

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has had quite a successful 2020, after launching the Chang’e-5 lunar mission (23 November 2020) and successfully returning a capsule full of moon rocks back to earth (16 December 2020). The Chang’e-5 is said to have returned 4.4 pounds (1.99 kg) of lunar samples.

The Chang’e-5 mission is the first sample mission to the moon by the CNSA, it being successful on its first attempt is a strong indication of the high level of expertise China now has when it comes to space operations. China has also shown the level of seriousness it takes its space program willing to fund missions that will guarantee its permanent presence in Space.

images from CGTN https://news.cgtn.com/

How did the Chang’e-5 Lunar mission work?

The Chang’e-5 mission comprised of firstly, launching into space from Wenchang, China, using the Long March 5 rocket system developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). The long March 5 is the current workhorse of the CNSA and is involved in almost every major Chinese space program. Once in space, the Chang’e 5 orbiter travelled from earth to the moon.

Secondly, the Chang’e 5 orbiter reached the moon and deployed its lunar lander successfully touching down (1 December 2020), on the Mons Rümker a volcanic plain of the moon. Thirdly, the lander then proceeded to collect sample material and launching off and returning back to the Chang’e orbiter (3 December 2020). Finally, the Chang’e 5 returned to earth at the Landing site of Inner Mongolia, China, with a capsule full of lunar material.

Images from CGTN https://news.cgtn.com/

Why was the Chang’e-5 mission important?

The next mission for the CNSA is Chang’e-6 a planned robotic Chinese lunar exploration mission expected to be launched in 2023. This mission will encompass the development of a robotic research station near the Moon’s South Pole. The end goal of the Chang’e missions is to create a lunar landing platform from which crewed lunar missions can take place.

The lunar material collected as part of the Chang’e-5 and Chang’e-6 missions will be used to determine the amount of water available at those lunar landing sites. The missions will also help in determining if those sites are suitable for solar panel installations, and finally, the material collected will also be used to determine how much helium-3 isotopes are accessible for mining.

Chang’e-5 Lunar Lander Image from http://CGTN https://news.cgtn.com/

Why the moon is so important?

There is currently a new space race building up as the USA space agency (NASA), the European space agency (ESA), Russia’s (Roscosmos), India’s (ISRO), Japan’s (JAXA) and Israel’s (ISA) as well as China’s space authority (CNSA) all have plans in the works for the colonization of the moon. The moon is very important for one main reason, helium-3.  The moon due to its lack of atmosphere is believed to have an all most abundant supply of Helium-3, way more than earth has and in a less expensive form.

Helium-3 is an Isotope which is essential for nuclear fusion, the next level beyond nuclear fission. Currently, all nuclear power plants around the world run on the process known as nuclear fission, this process is able to create reliable power generation needed for homes and businesses but has the drawbacks of nuclear waste, radiation and potential nuclear meltdowns, for instance, the Ukraine Chernobyl disaster (1986), and most recently Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi accident (2013).

What a Helium-3 Fusion reaction looks like image from https://prometeon.it/production-of-helium-3-new/

Why nuclear fusion is important?

Nuclear fusion is the holy grail of nuclear power generation, it has all the benefits of nuclear fission but with none of the drawbacks. Helium-3 is an essential component needed to successfully create a sustainable nuclear fusion reaction. Once mined and transported to earth helium-3 is predicted to usher in a new age of renewable sustainable power generation. All the fore mentioned countries planning to colonize the moon are also developing nuclear fusion projects and are expected to make significant breakthroughs by 2030.

Helium-3 on earth is scarce and needs refinement and is also costly to produce. While Helium-3 on the moon is all over the surface, meaning the only problem is travelling from earth to the moon and setting up a mining operation in the vacuum of space. China and others are racing to be the first to set up this lunar mining operation, as the first to mine Helium-3 and generate a nuclear reaction will reap all the rewards probably measuring in the trillions.

The Joint European Torus (seen here with a superimposed image of a plasma) is one of the machines helping to unlock fusion power. Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

The success of Chang’e-5 is not only great for China but the world as well, as more countries are involved in space the more beneficial it is for humanity. The research and new technologies developed from these space programs always trickle down to new commercial products and services creating new skills and jobs. 

A lot of modern technology we use today is the direct result of NASA space missions with its lunar Apollo program in the 1960s. The colonization of the moon could help set up the next 100 years of renewable and sustainable power generation alleviating numerous economic and political problems in the process.

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