Tuesday, 21 October 2008
Chandrayaan-1: India Joins Helium 3 Race With the USA, Russia, China, Europe And Japan
October 21, 2008
By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad, Oct 20: India has joined the race for Helium-3, a replacement for fossil fuels, with the USA, Russia, Japan, Europe, and China as the countdown for the historic Chandrayaan-1 mission to the Moon began on Monday.
One of the mission objectives of India's lunar orbitor, Chandrayaan-1, is to understand the mineralogy of the Moon in much finer detail and quantify precious Helium-3 stocks buried underneath its craters. "No one is sure whether there's Helium-3 at all on the Moon. It has been thus far a scientific hypothesis. Chandrayaan-1 will make this belief a reality," astrophysicist N Sri Raghunandan Kumar said.
Once Chandrayaan-1 relays its data on the Helium-3 stocks to ISRO's master control room back home in Bengaluru, India will have a larger claim on the natural lunar resources when man begins to colonise it at a later date. India will have a greater advantage under the IPR regime, since it has not only spent Rs 386 crore on the mission but also came out with new findings on Helium-3.
Helium-3 is an isotope of the earthly Helium, the gas that is generally used to inflate balloons. But unlike its poor cousin, Helium-3 is quite precious, 100 times more valuable than gold. It is the gas that is touted as the future fuel of nuclear plants and automotives.
At present market prices of petroleum products, a tonne of Helium-3 costs not less than Rs 13,500 crore as against Rs 140 crore per tonne of gold. It is precious than enriched uranium, not only in terms of its value but also in terms of radioactive emission.
Helium-3 is clean and less radioactive than uranium and thorium. And the Moon is said to have one million tonnes of Helium-3. Chandrayaan-1 will explore whether the Moon has even larger stocks of this clean nuclear fuel. According to ISRO scientists, Helium-3 is present in the Moon's regolith (loose rocks or mantle) just below the surface of its false seas (maria).
Incidentally, Helium-3 is the only lunar resource worth extracting and bringing back to Earth. The human planet too has Helium-3 reserves, but they are less than 200 kgs. A tonne and a half of Helium-3 is sufficient to light up India for 365 days.
Senior astronomer Prof G Yellaih told this correspondent that the energy needs of the Earth would double in the next four decades and Helium-3 could be used to produce clean electricity. "Helium-3 can be used in fusion reactors to meet the energy needs of the world in future. India will definitely have a claim over Helium-3 by virtue of Chandrayaan-1 mission," he pointed out.
European Space Agency astrophysicists are of the view that the by-products of Helium-3 after its use for nuclear energy will be extremely helpful to support life in future lunar colonies. The by-products include hydrogen, water, nitrogen and methane.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the USA has estimated that a space shuttle load of Helium-3 would power the entire US for a year. For a developing country like India, a shuttle load of this celestial gas will work wonders as part of its energy requirements are concerned.
"There is more than 100 times more energy in the Helium-3 on the Moon than in all the economically recoverable coal, oil, and natural gas on earth. Helium-3 is highly safe and the fusion reactor using this fuel can be located amidst populated areas," he said.
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