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On December 16, 2020, a capsule containing lunar soil samples, taken by the Chinese Chang’e 5 probe, landed in Inner Mongolia. These samples were carefully examined by the scientists. The China Space Administration and the China Atomic Energy Authority have just announced the discovery of a brand new mineral, which they call Changesite- (Y). This is the first time that China has discovered a new mineral on our satellite.
Thanks to the Chang’e 5 mission, China has become the third country (after the United States and the former Soviet Union) to return lunar samples to Earth. No lunar material has been reported since 1976! It is therefore with great interest and meticulousness that Chinese scientists analyzed the approximately 1700 grams of regolith collected in the Mons Rümker region. Today they announce that they have detected a new mineral, the sixth discovered on the Moon.
According to the Xinhua News Agency, this new mineral is a kind of transparent and colorless columnar crystal. It was discovered by an analysis of lunar basalt particles by a research team at the Beijing Uranium Geology Research Institute, a subsidiary of the China National Nuclear Corporation. The discovery makes China the third country in the world to have discovered a new mineral on the moon, said Dong Baotong, deputy director of the Chinese Atomic Energy Authority.
Another step towards the exploitation of lunar helium 3
Changesite- (Y), present in the sample as a single particle with a radius of about 10 micrometers, was officially approved as a new mineral by the Commission for New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification of the International Mineralogical Association.
But the Chang’e 5 mission made it possible to obtain another crucial data: the samples made it possible to estimate the concentration of helium 3 contained in the lunar dust and to define its extraction parameters. However, helium 3 is a promising potential fuel for nuclear fusion. The “preferred” nuclear fusion reaction is normally initiated with two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. The latter has a proton and two neutrons; decays into helium 3, emitting low-energy beta radiation and an electronic antineutrino.
The helium-3 nucleus has two protons and a single neutron (it is the only known stable isotope of an element that has more protons than neutrons). A fusion reaction between deuterium and helium 3 produces helium 4 and a proton; it can theoretically release 164.3 megawatt-hours of energy per gram of helium 3, that’s right New Atlas. The advantage of this reaction is that neither helium 3 nor the products of the reaction are radioactive (unlike the deuterium-tritium reaction, where the produced neutrons can make the materials in the reactor radioactive).
If this reaction is not currently considered by experimental fusion reactors, it is because it requires even higher temperatures than a tritium reactor (around 600 million degrees!), Not to mention that helium 3 is extremely rare and difficult to isolate. on Earth (in the atmosphere, it is present in minimum concentrations of the order of 7 parts per trillion). Helium 3 today mainly derives from the disintegration of tritium, which in turn is produced in a nuclear fission reactor. On the moon, however, it is much more abundant: according to estimates, the lunar reserves of helium 3 would amount to 1.1 million tons.
A precious resource, but difficult to exploit
According to’Summary of international politics, this represents resources worth about 1.5 quadrillion dollars (not counting the price increase inherent in the use of helium 3 in future fusion reactors)! For Ouyang Ziyuan, head of China’s lunar exploration program, these resources are “an opportunity to transform fusion energy”: Each year, three Space Shuttle missions could provide enough fuel for all humans on the planet He said in the mid-2000s.
An interesting resource, but the construction of a lunar mining plant would generate considerable costs, without forgetting the organization of the return to Earth of the collected helium 3 … The highest concentrations of helium 3 in the lunar soil are estimated at about 50 parts per billion, 150 tons of regolith would have to be processed to collect just one gram of this isotope! Note that China has not disclosed the exact concentrations found in its samples.
The costs of extracting the precious isotope do not seem to slow down the ambitions of China, firmly determined to position itself in the sector as soon as possible. As pointed out by theSummary of international politics, is the only one to map the helium-3 deposits on the opposite side of the moon. ” If China were to gain a monopoly on helium 3 available on the Moon, it would become the first economic power on Earth “, Summarizes the magazine.
Following the announcement of the discovery, the Chinese Space Agency also confirmed the next three lunar missions of the Chang’e exploration program over the next 10 years. The Chang’e 6 mission, scheduled to launch in 2024, must retrieve samples from the far side of the Moon; the following missions will be used to explore the lunar south pole and to lay the foundations of an international lunar research station.