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Moon Space The Almighty Buck Science

The Economic Development of the Moon 408

Posted by Zonk
from the looking-forward-to-my-io-apartment dept.
MarkWhittington writes "Andrew Smith, the author of Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, recently published a polemic in the British newspaper The Guardian, entitled Plundering the Moon, that argued against the economic development of the Moon. Apparently the idea of mining Helium 3, an isotope found on the Moon but not on the Earth (at least in nature) disturbs Mr. Smith from an environmentalist standpoint. An examination of the issue makes one wonder why."
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The Economic Development of the Moon

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  • by SIGALRM (784769) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:34PM (#21218603) Journal
    From TFA[1]:

    The prospect of either Helium 3 fueled fusion or space based solar power or a combination of both replacing fossil fuels should excite people who express concern for the Earth's environment
    It's a big, dead rock in space, boys. I doubt that the ridiculous cost of space travel will ever fall enough to make it worthwhile, but in case that happens, the lunar environmentalists will be there to file EPA complaints against anyone trying to make the moon economically productive.

    If you looked at the sky through a telescope and saw a tiny robot mining plant there, mining the moon for energy resources, would you be filled with a sense of wonder and pride about the ingenuity and courage of your fellow man, or with forbidding and dread that the moon was being raped?
    • by schlouse (36695) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:36PM (#21218633)
      I, for one, welcome our new moon raping overlords.
    • by camperdave (969942) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:39PM (#21218657) Journal
      If you looked at the sky through a telescope and saw a tiny robot mining plant there, mining the moon for energy resources, would you be filled with a sense of wonder and pride about the ingenuity and courage of your fellow man, or with forbidding and dread that the moon was being raped?

      Given our current level of technology, if I looked at the sky through a telescope and saw a tiny robot mining plant there, mining the moon for energy resources, I would be filled with a sense of wonder about the ingenuity of aliens, and with forbidding and dread that the Earth would be next.
    • by ShieldW0lf (601553) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:43PM (#21218723) Journal
      Well, from a practical standpoint, we should be using earthbound energy sources to create space based energy sources, then switch to them entirely, and in the same way, we should be using earthbound resources to gain the capacity to gather off-earth resources, and eventually, harvest material that comes from outside the solar system and switch to them entirely.

      You stretch the timeline out long enough and assume success and growth, someday we're going to want to have this solar system as a Galactic Wildlife Park. We want it to be the shining jewel of humanity, not a burnt out old husk that we fled because we had to.
      • by BlackGriffen (521856) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:57PM (#21218897)
        In order to get to the point that we could make an entire solar system a boondoggle, we'll have to get out of ours first. That means tapping energy and resources available in the solar system, whether the process is pretty or not.

        It's all getting destroyed by the sun in a few billion years, anyway.
    • by jtroutman (121577) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:59PM (#21218917)
      If you looked at the sky through a telescope and saw a tiny robot mining plant there, mining the moon for energy resources, would you be filled with a sense of wonder and pride about the ingenuity and courage of your fellow man, or with forbidding and dread that the moon was being raped?

      If I looked at the sky through a telescope and saw a tiny robot mining plant there, mining the moon for energy resources, I'd be filled with a sense of wonder at how far telescope technology had come. Even the most powerful scopes we have here on Earth can't pick out the man-made stuff already on the moon.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Kremmy (793693)
        I've wondered about that. We've got telescopes giving us images of things far beyond on our solar system, so why not high resolution imagery of the moon? It would be trivial to solve the debate on whether we actually went to the moon or not if we could look in a telescope and see what we left there. Surely the Hubble occasionally pointed at the moon, are there any images from that? I'd really like to know.
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Chosen Reject (842143)
          The Hubble telescope can't really take pictures of Earth [hubblesite.org] because it is moving too fast. I could be wrong, but maybe the Hubble can't take pictures of the moon for the same reason.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by hardburn (141468)

            No, it's because the size of the optics was limited by what they could carry in the shuttle. Here's the math [cornell.edu], for the interested.

            In any case, pictures from the Hubble will never convince the moon hoax people. If the landings were faked in the first place, how much harder is it to fake a few telescope pictures?

    • by domatic (1128127) on Friday November 02, 2007 @07:19PM (#21219131)
      It sounds like the premise of the next Bond flick: MoonRaper.
    • by sdnick (1025630) on Friday November 02, 2007 @07:32PM (#21219301)
      Apparently the idea of mining Helium 3, an isotope found on the Moon but not on the Earth (at least in nature) disturbs Mr. Smith from an environmentalist standpoint.

      There is no legitimate environmentalist standpoint worth discussing about the Moon. There is no life on the Moon. There is no environment for environmentalists to worry about. If they're worried about the faint possibility that human mining will somehow create some crater on the moon visible from the Earth, they can just pretend an asteroid made it, same as the millions of other craters littering the moon's surface. Or just perform the mining on the horribly scarred side of the Moon facing away from the Earth and dare anyone to claim that man's activities make it look worse.
    • by jcr (53032)
      If you looked at the sky through a telescope and saw a tiny robot mining plant there,

      If I could do that, I'd be asking who built that telescope and whether I could afford one. I'd love to have optics of that quality.

      -jcr

    • by Socguy (933973)
      Ya, I gotta say that as much as I support the environment here on earth, I can't think of a single reason why we shouldn't mine the moon....
    • by Smauler (915644) on Friday November 02, 2007 @08:39PM (#21219963)

      I personally believe that _anything_ that helps us get off this planet is basically a good thing. I don't just believe this because of the eggs in one basket argument, though that is an important reason for humanity to not just live on Earth. The main argument in my eyes is that the faster we get into space, the faster I (or my son/daughter, or their son/daughter, etc) am going to get a spaceship.

      Also, it's a big dead rock in space now. Geologically it's pretty useful. Militarily it's an imperative to control it so that someone else doesn't. It _will_ be of strategic importance in the future.

      Mining the moon for minerals is _not_ raping it. Firstly, you're using the word rape badly (rape requires ability to consent, unless you look to some archaic texts). The moon cannot give consent. It's a rock. It cannot be raped. Secondly, why on earth would mining the moon be considered bad in the first place? I mean, as you said, it's just a big old rock.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Ucklak (755284)
      Some people like a city view, some people like a mountain view, some people like an ocean view.
      This is no different.

      The city view in Honolulu is offensive to those that choose to stay on Molokai or Kauai.
      Some who live in the plains might like the city view in the mountains that Honolulu has to offer.
  • by jdtch (1175537) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:38PM (#21218641)
    I think neglecting the potential for cheese mining is the real crime here.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:38PM (#21218649)
    As I think of it. I think most people think of clean air and water and an ecosystem as an environment. Not a bunch of dead dust in a vacuum.

    It seems that many in the "environmental" movement just want nothing to change from its "natural" state, even where there is no nature.
  • Praxis (Score:4, Funny)

    by kerohazel (913211) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:42PM (#21218709) Homepage
    If we mine the moon, then we'll become dependent on its resources. When it finally explodes (as moons are notorious for doing), our glorious space empire will fall.
  • In the movie the main character is having an interesting journey through time until he hit a 'bump' at August 26th 2037, where he finds a Moon mining operation has disrupted the lunar orbit. As a result, the Moon is breaking apart and showering Earth with massive chunks of rock. His presence outside of a shelter leads to an attempt by two military personnel to arrest him, but after they draw his attention to the shattered Moon and give him a brief explanation behind its present state, there is a scuffle and
  • ...except he didn't make any. His rhetoric boils down to "Environmentalism is good. Looking at the Earth from the Moon helped kickstart environmentalism. Therefore we shouldn't mine the moon." It's a non-sequitur on the order of the Chewbacca Defense. He expects that yelling "Environmentalism!" will cause enough knees to jerk to sway opinion without actually making any arguments. (The sad thing is he may be right, given as how many people treat environmentalism as the new religion. [crichton-official.com] )

    Are we to avoid mining the moon because it will harm the native lifeforms? Oh yeah, there aren't any.

    Do we need to invent the word "rock-hugger"?

    • by sheepweevil (1036936) on Friday November 02, 2007 @07:10PM (#21219039) Homepage
      I risk going off-topic here, but people whom most would describe as 'rock huggers' exist already. They wish to prevent rock climbers from climbing on certain rock faces.

      Rock climbers use 'chalk' that prevents hands from being sweaty, but it has the unfortunate side effect of putting white patches wherever there are handholds on the rock face. Also, one method of climbing a rock wall involves having metal pitons drilled into the rock. Some groups lobby to have rock climbers stop climbing in areas, or disallow them from placing pitons.

      So I guess the argument in this case with the moon isn't about lifeforms, it is more about aesthetics; similar to the 'rock huggers' I have described. But I don't see how mass mining of the moon would have a visual effect on the moon's appearance for a very very long time.
      • by jcr (53032)
        I risk going off-topic here, but people whom most would describe as 'rock huggers' exist already. They wish to prevent rock climbers from climbing on certain rock faces.

        Well, most rock climbers I've ever seen could easily kick the rock-huggers' asses, so it sounds like a non-issue to me.

        -jcr

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      I agree with what you've said, just not the site you've linked. Crichton is not a scientist and spreads FUD about climate change, just from the opposite blindsided viewpoint.
    • by Watts Martin (3616) <layotl&gmail,com> on Friday November 02, 2007 @08:43PM (#21219979) Homepage
      While Sheepweevil makes essentially the same point, you could make the argument that restricting industry on the moon is good from the perspective of preserving natural monuments. There are a lot of sites right here on Earth that have no direct economic value, but that, it could be argued, have their own intrinsic, non-economic value. That notion of intrinsic value tends to sit very poorly with those who define all external value as economic, but conservation and preservation on purely economic measures has always been dicey. (i.e., if you tried to make an argument for restricting whaling based on the grounds that if you killed all of them, there wouldn't be a whaling industry any more, the moment someone comes along with a paper demonstrating that a higher return on investment can be achieved by killing all the whales now and sinking part of the profits into something else, you're hosed. An argument for saving whales has to assign them intrinsic value separate from their economic use.)

      Of course, if I take off the devil's advocate hat, I might make the more prosaic point that there are a whole frikkin' lot of technological issues that have to be solved to get to the point where having this argument even makes sense. It's easy to pile onto Andrew Smith, the author of the anti-plundering column, but I'm not giving any kudos to Mark Whittington, the guy who wrote the response and managed to get Slashdot to put this on the front page. Smith's column is actually very short and doesn't really talk about "saving the moon's environment." Whittington is by and large using this as an excuse to trot out hoary old libertarian-crank* nonsense about how environmentalists are all anti-technology luddites who won't be happy unless we return to the Dark Ages.

      *Before the libertarians leap on this, I do distinguish between "libertarian" and "libertarian-crank." Drawing the distinction is beyond the scope of this footnote.

  • by Cajun Hell (725246) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:46PM (#21218775) Homepage Journal

    If you let the helium out, it will stop floating up in the sky. Guess where it will fall.

    Screw volcanoes; some people say the dinosaurs died because they had no space program. Maybe they died because they did have one, and made the same type of arrogant mistake.

  • Mr Moonbeam (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:51PM (#21218825) Homepage Journal

    Earth's sister has played a role in teaching us to value our environment: how extraordinary to think that the next giant leap for the environmental movement might be a campaign to stop state-sponsored mining companies chomping her up in glorious privacy, a quarter of a million miles from our ravaged home.

    He doesn't even give a reason why the environmental movement might want to stop mining the Moon. Maybe he thinks environmentalism is about "pretty Nature, don't hurt her", rather than survival and legacy, but he doesn't even say so.

    The only argument his protest makes about mining the Moon is in favor: mining the He-3 would reduce the need to damage the Earth producing energy here.

    There might be an argument for science preserving the layout of the Lunar surface for study (eg, the record of impact angles and composition which accumulate billions of years of astrophysical history), but there are technical solutions to that problem, and he doesn't even mention them (except some handwaving about lacking "science" in our goals).

    That is the kind of taking "environmentalism's" name in vain that gives legitimate environmentalism a bad name.
  • Flawed Philosophy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Toonol (1057698) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:52PM (#21218831)
    This is a very harmful idea. A certain amount of environmentalism makes sense; disrupting ecosystems can have harmful repercussions, as can running out of non-renewable resources, etc.

    But this idea of preserving the lunar environment seems to me to be based on the idea that objects are better left untouched by humanity. That things should be left untouched, even when it is detrimental to humanity, and no worse than neutral to our ecosystem. This is the type of nonsense that, in the extreme, calls for humanity to let itself go extinct, so as to stop our plundering of the Earth.

    Nothing in nature is a value, without something living that gives it that worth.
    • by Adambomb (118938)
      The only thing I can even imagine would be a difference in tidal forces, but I doubt we would even be able to MOVE enough matter off the moon for that to make a difference. This is really a non-story beyond exposing that some will extend their ideologies to settings where they do not apply, without even stating what we should look into in terms of why.
    • by langelgjm (860756) on Friday November 02, 2007 @07:26PM (#21219207) Journal

      I don't think environmentalism is the important issue here. I'm more interested in what impact the economic development of the moon will have on international relations.

      Whose moon is it? Of course we have treaties, but when a company starts mining up there, you can bet the profits aren't going to be distributed very widely. Besides the ethical implications of this, how are other states going to react to an American or Chinese company mining a resource that used to be considered off-limits and belonging to all, until it was convenient for that to no longer be the case? Is this just a case of first come, first serve capitalism? There are more things at stake here than just environmentalism.

      • I don't think environmentalism is the important issue here. I'm more interested in what impact the economic development of the moon will have on international relations.

        Now, that's a more reasonable concern. I think it's a problem that needs solved, but it's not an insolvable problem. I would imagine that by the time we can really begin raping the moon's resources in appreciable quantities, there will be some political guidelines in place.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by tftp (111690)
          We could, for example, implement a Moon use tax, and all people on Earth would be getting an equal share from use of each square mile of Moon's surface, payable by Moon mining companies to the governments and then distributed as people of each country want. That tax would be small, compared to the costs involved in Moon mining and sales of resulting goods.
    • by bugnuts (94678)
      Keeping the moon "pristine" is not a flawed philosophy. It's valid, but any sort of ecological basis is certainly flawed... there's little ecology to be preserved on the moon. In 100,000 years or so, it might even be torn apart by tidal forces and become a ring around the earth.

      The valid basis is one the article scorned. That basis is "beauty," not some fear of technology. It's based on the natural tendency of people to exploit, and to destroy. And especially destructive are those seeking riches, eithe
  • Simple solution (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rossdee (243626) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:55PM (#21218857)
    Lets mine the far side of the moon, where it won't be seen by those on earth.
  • Ummmm. o-kay. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Penguinisto (415985) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:55PM (#21218859) Journal
    This guy proves once and for all that for some elements (not ALL, damnit - just some), it isn't about preserving an ecosystem or conserving species, but about absolute and unrelenting self-hatred for the human species.

    Seriously - if it was an argument about contributing to space junk (which can be a hazard to life and limb), or an argument about leaving nascent life (like, say, on Europa or Titan) alone to develop, play... I can grok those arguments.

    But the ones presented? ...it's the friggin' Moon! There ain't jack shit for life or biomass there! The only non-commercial value it currently has offhand are the Apollo landing sites (for historical value), and that's it!

    IMHO, tear that bastard up if it generates commerce, gives us extra space to live, acts as an astronomical platform, and more importantly, if it takes humankind that much closer to becoming a space-faring race. It's not like we'll reduce its mass enough to really worry about instability (at least not within the next billion years or so), and it's (IMHO) free and open for the taking - belonging (nor should it ever belong) to no earth-bound nation.

    /P

  • I guess he is worried that the moon will have another crater or two. Actually it may be nice if he and all his followers and sympathisers would go to the moon and leave us here on earth alone.
  • What environment? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SKorvus (685199) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:57PM (#21218895) Homepage
    I am an very environmentally-conscious person: walking, biking or transit, no car. Vegan. Local, preferably organic produce. Buy used goods where-ever possible, make do or repair rather than buying. I give that as background, so that it's clear I'm not a typical consumer that thinks my personal desires outweigh impact to the environment.

    That that said, I must ask: what environment? The moon is a lifeless, barren hunk of rock. All that has ever occurred in its history, is being pummeled by countless meteors to create a scarred and pulverized surface. There is no environment to protect, only dust and rocks. And as pristine and spartan beauty that may be, there's simply no one to admire it.

    Right now, the universe appears devoid of life, except on our tiny blue rock, and it's always in danger of being snuffed out by one stray asteroid. Getting humanity up into space is the best thing we can do, for us, and for the Earth. Where we go, we will bring life with us. We will create new environments on any planets we settle. We are the seed by which Earth's life can spread throughout the galaxy.

    Seeing lights glittering back at us from human settlements during a new moon shouldn't be viewed as a desecration of something worth saving, but the growth of new life where there was none before.

  • And If We Don't... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Friday November 02, 2007 @07:01PM (#21218945)
    And if we don't plunder the Moon, what happens? It sits up there in pristine condition for what -- forever?

    Just look at all the beautiful He3. Isn't it beautiful? Aren't you glad your daddy stopped them from plundering the Moon of all of it so that we can almost enjoy this unspoiled view of it through the completely polluted atmosphere of Earth because we never got that clean energy source from up there?

    Yeah, right! There are some real clowns in the world, and the guy against this qualifies as two of them when weighted in the average of clown foolishness.

    • Pristine? FTA: Not that the Moon can be actually said to be pristine. After being formed billions of years ago, the Moon has been subject to bombardment by meteors, asteroids, and comets that has left craters and other scars on its surface.

      I think the author has about as much understanding of the meaning of "pristine" as Alaska's Sen. Ted Stevens [thinkexist.com].
  • Falacy (Score:2, Interesting)

    by femto (459605)

    The rebuttal is based on the fallacy that without life environmental protection has no merit. If an environment is devoid of life it is still an environment. The land itself is worthy of protection. It's something Australia's aborigines have been pointing out for years, that their land has intrinsic value. Most of the rest of Australia has taken the moon mining viewpoint and desecrated the land in the name of development.

    From a purely selfish human point of view there might also come a day when people

    • Re:Falacy (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Jerf (17166) on Friday November 02, 2007 @08:19PM (#21219787) Journal

      From a purely selfish human point of view there might also come a day when people want to visit that untouched environment.
      So, on the one hand, we have the Moon.
      • Vast energy and material resources that will allow untold bazillions of years of human lifespan.
      • Vast energy and material resources that will allow the flourishing ecosystems that Man will bring with him, totalling even more untold bazillions of years of life. (If we truly colonize the Moon, only the first generation or two will live in the sterile settlements we all imagine.)
      • Vast energy and material resources which will allow untold bazillions of years of life for new life forms, those adapted to the lunar environments and those partially or entirely created by Man.
      • An insurance policy for intelligent life as we know it (not just Man, you know, not for much longer) against an unfortunate accident on the Earth.
      • A launching base for further exploration and the spreading of yet more life, wonderful, vibrant, diverse life across the universe.
      Against this, you argue
      • Somebody, someday, might want to see the original moon.
      How unbelievably fucking selfish to deny the universe life so that you can see a pretty rock. Get a poster or something already. If you try, you might be able to get one with a unicorn on it too; bonus!

      Environmentalists ought to be leading the charge for space colonization. Forget saving ecosystems that do pretty well without your help... what about the ecosystems that don't even exist yet? Biodiversity? You ain't seen nothing yet. If you love life, don't stand in front of it.
  • This quest for Helium 3 and water on the moon sounds like a quest for WMD. They're not going to find anything. The real value of the moon is space for humans to live on. We're out of space on Earth.

    • by geekoid (135745)
      No, healium 3 is on the moon. That's a fact.

      Another fact is that we are not over populated at all. Hell, tyou could put everyone in the world in Texas, and none of them would be able to touch another.

      There is plenty of food, and we can bring it anywhere. The problem is political.
      There are people in power who, literally, would rather let food rot in a warehouse while there people starve then feed their people.
  • Where in the Guardian article does Smith claim that mining the moon is bad? He just points out that it is the likeliest cause for renewed interest in moon missions and goes over a couple of the good and bad consequences. There's no argument in there either for or against. At least from reading the article I've decided moon mining is a pretty good idea.

    Even the last sentence, which is jumped on by the AC article only describes a possible environmentalist reaction.

  • We already have a source of clean limitless power: solar. But anyone can generate it! On the other hand, the distribution of energy harvested from the moon would be a tightly controlled affair. Very lucrative.
  • Mr. Smith is an enemy of mankind. If he wants to freeze in the dark, he can do so to his heart's content.

    -jcr

  • How about this as a compromise: We'll only mine/develop/harvest/rape the side of the moon that faces AWAY from Earth. That way he doesn't have to see it change from Earth. And since Luna has no atmosphere (and not enough gravity to ever hold one), there's no worry about pollution smogging up the near side, or (in general) effects generated on the far side from propagating to the near side.

    Just kidding! I don't have any problem with developing the moon; this guy's wrong. Not that being careful custodians

  • We must protect our lifeless, uninhabitable and toxic environments from our waste and pollution, lest they become er... lifeless, toxic and uh.. uninabitable... oh never mind.
  • by Ardeaem (625311) on Friday November 02, 2007 @07:32PM (#21219299)
    From the linked article:

    One can be forgiven for suspecting that the true motives of environmentalists, whether they oppose mining the Moon, drilling for oil in Alaska, or building wind farms off Nantucket, involve less a love for the environment and more a hostility for technology itself.
    I believe I speak for most environmentalists on Slashdot (having read the comments about this article) and most environmentalists in general (although I can't be sure) that the implication that environmentalists are just crazy Ludites is crazy in itself. Only someone completely cut off from average, everyday environmentalists would say such a thing. The evidence just on Slashdot is overwhelming; no one would say Slashdotters are hostile towards technology, and many (most?) could be described as environmentalists. This just doesn't square with reality.

    Just because one (or a few) environmentalist has a (to us) wacky view, doesn't mean he represents the whole of environmentalists. The only reason you'd imply this is if you had an agenda, and the author of the linked article clearly does.
    • by bnenning (58349) on Friday November 02, 2007 @08:45PM (#21219999)
      the implication that environmentalists are just crazy Ludites is crazy in itself

      Most aren't. But unfortunately the few that are have a lot of influence. Look at the utterly irrational fear of nuclear power they've created, when by any environmental standard it's tremendously better than fossil fuels. For them, the real problem is not environmental damage but our decadent materialist lifestyles, and anything that allows us to continue on that path must be opposed.
  • by iamlucky13 (795185) on Friday November 02, 2007 @07:44PM (#21219425)
    A lot of us are anxious to see some major commercial application of space (see the recent discussion on space-based solar power, too), but I'm afraid helium-3 mining on the moon is not a feasible one.

    First of all, Helium-3 already exists in smaller amounts on earth. It makes up about 0.00138% of the helium on the earth, as opposed to 0.00138% of helium on the moon. More importantly, it can also be synthesized by deuterium fusion or by tritium decay, although current production is only a few kilograms per year. However, one of the first generation fusion fuels is deuterium, so it's very likely that first generation technology could eventually be used to make fuel for second generation fusion plants.

    Second, obviously, we have not achieved practical hydrogen fusion yet, much less helium fusion, which is harder. The current ITER timeline estimates the first commercial hydrogen fusion plants will come online around 2040-2050. Helium fusion, if we decide it's worth the effort to develop, will come later.

    Third, you have to move a lot of dirt to get a useful amount of He-3. Estimates are the US alone would need at least 15-20 tons per year for our current electrical generation. At the quoted 0.01 ppm on the moon, that means you need to process 2 billion tons (approx 670 million cubic meters) of regolith every year. In comparison, the giant Three Gorges Dam in China required excavating only 134 million cubic meters of material over a period of 10 years, using thousands of workers and who knows how many tons of heavy equipment.

    Additionally, processing the regolith for the helium requires first boiling out all of the gasses by heating the excavated dirt several hundred degrees, then separating the minute fraction of He-3 from all the "waste" gasses. It will be very energy intensive. By my very rough math, every cubic meter of moon you excavate requires on order of 100 kW-hours of heat, so a year's worth of digging would take 47 billion kW-hours. This is about 4% of our current electrical usage, which hints at the scale of the power production facilities that would have to be built on the moon to facilitate this mining...over 5,000 MW of capacity not counting digging and gas segregation energy needs.
  • by Animats (122034) on Friday November 02, 2007 @09:30PM (#21220315) Homepage

    The "Helium 3 on the moon" people have it backwards. As someone else pointed out, you have to mine a lot of dirt to get any useful amount of the stuff. On the other hand, deuterium is available at moderate prices. Heavy water costs about $300/Kg. If we ever get fusion to work as a power source (a big if, after half a century of failure), deuterium fusion will work first.

    There's some grumbling about deuterium fusion producing radioactive waste products, but it's nowhere near as messy as fission. You get some tritium (which is a useful material; among other things, it decays into ... Helium-3!) and the reactor components may become radioactive, but the isotopes are relatively short-lived; decades, not millennia, of decay time are required. The concrete and steel has already cooled off for many older decommissioned reactors.

    Helium-3 fusion is potentially cleaner, though. If we ever get fusion to work, it's the fuel of choice for getting off the earth with fusion power, because you could dump the reaction products into the atmosphere without causing fallout.

    So forget about mining the moon to power Earth. Dumb idea. Think about mining helium on Earth to power launch vehicles.

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