moon

An astronaut does a spacewalk on the Moon.

(© Vadimsadovski/Adobe)


"That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."

This July 20th marks fifty years since Neil Armstrong, mission commander of NASA's Apollo 11, uttered those famous words. Much less discussed is how Project Apollo shifted lunar science into high gear, ultimately teaching scientists just how valuable the Moon could become.

A lunar-based solar power system would actually be cheaper than Earth-based solar power implemented on a global scale.

During the six missions that landed humans on the lunar surface from 1969 to 1972, Apollo astronauts collected some 842 pounds of lunar rocks and dirt. Analysis of these materials has provided us with major clues about the origin of Earth's celestial companion 4.51 billion years ago, but also has revealed the Moon is a treasure trove. Lunar rock contains a plethora of minerals with high industrial value. So let's take a look at some prime examples of how humanity's expected return to the lunar surface in the years to come could help life here on Earth.

24/7 solar energy for Earth

During the 1970s, scientists began examining the Apollo lunar samples to study how the lunar surface could be used as a resource. One such scientist was physicist David Criswell, who has since shown that a lunar-based solar power system would actually be cheaper than Earth-based solar power implemented on a global scale. Whoa! How is that possible, given the high cost of launching people and machines into space?

The key is that it would be enormously expensive to scale up enough Earth-based solar power to supply all of humanity's electrical needs, since solar power on such a scale would require a lot of metal, glass, and cement.

But the Moon's lack of atmosphere and weather means that photovoltaic cells built by robots from lunar materials can be paper thin, in contrast with the heavy structures needed in Earth-based solar arrays. Ringing the Moon, such a system would be in perpetual sunlight, making it cheaper to collect solar power there and beam it down to Earth in the form of microwaves.

A source of helium-3 for clean, safe nuclear fusion power and other uses

The gas helium-3 is extremely rare on Earth, but plentiful on the Moon, and could be used in advanced nuclear fusion reactors. Helium-3 also has anti-terrorism and medical uses, especially in the diagnosis of various pulmonary diseases.

A place to offload industrial pollution

Since there are minerals and oxygen in lunar rocks and dust, and frozen water in certain locations, the Moon is an ideal home for factories. Thus, billionaire Jeff Bezos has proposed relocating large segments of heavy industry there, reducing the amount of pollution that is produced on Earth.

The Moon could be a place for colonists to get their space legs before humans put down roots on more distant locations like Mars.

Radio Astronomy without interference from Earth

Constructed on the Moon's far side (the side of the Moon that always faces away from Earth), radio telescopes advancing human knowledge of the Cosmos, and searching for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, could operate with increased sensitivity and efficiency.

Lunar Tourism

Using the Moon as a destination for tourists may not sound helpful initially, given that only the very wealthy would be able to afford such journeys in the foreseeable future. However, the economic payoff could be substantial in terms of jobs that lunar tourism could provide on Earth. Furthermore, short of actual tourism, companies are gearing up to provide lunar entertainment to fun-seekers here on Earth in the form of mini lunar rovers that people could control from their living rooms, just for fun.

Lunar Colonies

Similar to lunar tourism, lunar colonization sounds initially like a development that would help only those people who go. But, located just three-days' travel from Earth, the Moon would be an excellent place for humanity to become a multi-planet species. The Moon could be a place for colonists to get their space legs before humans put down roots on more distant locations like Mars. With hundreds or thousands of humans thriving on the Moon, Earthlings might find some level of peace of mind knowing that humanity is in a position to outlive a planetary catastrophe.

David Warmflash
David Warmflash is an astrobiologist and science writer. He received his M.D. from Tel Aviv University Sackler School of Medicine, and has done post doctoral work at Brandeis University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the NASA Johnson Space Center, where he was part of the NASA's first cohort of astrobiology training fellows. He has written numerous articles covering a range of science topics, from the search for extraterrestrial life and space exploration to the origins of life, genetics, neuroscience, biotechnology, and the history of science. David’s articles have appeared in various publications, including Wired UK, Discover, Scientific American, Genetic Literacy Project, and Cricket Media. Throughout 2018, he did a blog post series on the emergence of ancient science for Vision Learning, covering thinkers from history. Many of these ancient pioneers of science also make an appearance in David's new book, "Moon: An Illustrated History: From Ancient Myths to the Colonies of Tomorrow."

An astronaut standing on the Moon.

(© pe3check/Fotolia)


Here's a riddle: What do the Moon, nuclear weapons, clean energy of the future, terrorism, and lung disease all have in common?

One goal of India's upcoming space probe is to locate deposits of helium-3 that are worth trillions of dollars.

The answer is helium-3, a gas that's extremely rare on Earth but 100 million times more abundant on the Moon. This past October, the Lockheed Martin corporation announced a concept for a lunar landing craft that may return humans to the Moon in the coming decade, and yesterday China successfully landed the Change-4 probe on the far side of the Moon. Landing inside the Moon's deepest crater, the Chinese achieved a first in space exploration history.

Meanwhile, later this month, India's Chandrayaan-2 space probe will also land on the lunar surface. One of its goals is to locate deposits of helium-3 that are worth trillions of dollars, because it could be a fuel for nuclear fusion energy to generate electricity or propel a rocket.

The standard way that nuclear engineers are trying to achieve sustainable fusion uses fuels that are more plentiful on Earth: deuterium and tritium. But MIT researchers have found that adding small amounts of helium-3 to the mix could make it much more efficient, and thus a viable energy source much sooner that once thought.

Even if fusion is proven practical tomorrow, any kind of nuclear energy involves long waits for power plant construction measured in decades. However, mining helium-3 could be useful now, because of its non-energy applications. A major one is its ability to detect neutrons coming from plutonium that could be used in terrorist attacks. Here's how it works: a small amount of helium-3 is contained within a forensic instrument. When a neutron hits an atom of helium-3, the reaction produces tritium, a proton, and an electrical charge, alerting investigators to the possibility that plutonium is nearby.

Ironically, as global concern about a potential for hidden nuclear material increased in the early 2000s, so did the supply of helium-3 on Earth. That's because helium-3 comes from the decay of tritium, used in thermonuclear warheads (H-bombs). Thousands of such weapons have been dismantled from U.S. and Russian arsenals, making helium-3 available for plutonium detection, research, and other applications--including in the world of healthcare.

Helium-3 can help doctors diagnose lung diseases, since it enables imaging of the lungs in real time.

Helium-3 dramatically improves the ability of doctors to image the lungs in a range of diseases including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, cystic fibrosis, and bronchopulmonary dysplasia, which happens particularly in premature infants. Specifically, helium-3 is useful in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a procedure that creates images from within the body for diagnostic purposes.

But while a standard MRI allows doctors to visualize parts of the body like the heart or brain, it's useless for seeing the lungs. Because lungs are filled with air, which is much less dense than water or fat, effectively no signals are produced that would enable imaging.

To compensate for this problem, a patient can inhale gas that is hyperpolarized –meaning enhanced with special procedures so that the magnetic resonance signals from the lungs are finally readable. This gas is safe to breathe when mixed with enough oxygen to support life. Helium-3 is one such gas that can be hyperpolarized; since it produces such a strong signal, the MRI can literally see the air inside the lungs and in all of the airways, revealing intricate details of the bronchopulmonary tree. And it can do this in real time

The capability to show anatomic details of the lungs and airways, and the ability to display functional imaging as a patient breathes, makes helium-3 MRI far better than the standard method of testing lung function. Called spirometry, this method tells physicians how the lungs function overall, but does not home in on particular areas that may be causing a problem. Plus, spirometry requires patients to follow instructions and hold their breath, so it is not great for testing young children with pulmonary disease.

In recent years, the cost of helium-3 on Earth has skyrocketed.

Over the past several years, researchers have been developing MRI for lung testing using other hyperpolarized gases. The main alternative to helium-3 is xenon-129. Over the years, researchers have learned to overcome certain disadvantages of the latter, such as its potential to put patients to sleep. Since helium-3 provides the strongest signal, though, it is still the best gas for MRI studies in many lung conditions.

But the supply of helium-3 on Earth has been decreasing in recent years, due to the declining rate of dismantling of warheads, just as the Department of Homeland Security has required more and more of the gas for neutron detection. As a result, the cost of the gas has skyrocketed. Less is available now for medical uses – unless, of course, we begin mining it on the moon.

The question is: Are the benefits worth the 239,000-mile trip?

David Warmflash
David Warmflash is an astrobiologist and science writer. He received his M.D. from Tel Aviv University Sackler School of Medicine, and has done post doctoral work at Brandeis University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the NASA Johnson Space Center, where he was part of the NASA's first cohort of astrobiology training fellows. He has written numerous articles covering a range of science topics, from the search for extraterrestrial life and space exploration to the origins of life, genetics, neuroscience, biotechnology, and the history of science. David’s articles have appeared in various publications, including Wired UK, Discover, Scientific American, Genetic Literacy Project, and Cricket Media. Throughout 2018, he did a blog post series on the emergence of ancient science for Vision Learning, covering thinkers from history. Many of these ancient pioneers of science also make an appearance in David's new book, "Moon: An Illustrated History: From Ancient Myths to the Colonies of Tomorrow."
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