China discovers a new mineral on the Moon


China’s Chang’E-5 robotic lunar mission has identified more than just water on the Moon’s surface. In fact, researchers have confirmed the discovery of a new mineral, a transparent crystal called Changesite-(Y). The mission also detected helium-3, a potentially promising fusion fuel. A new lunar mineral Just over two years ago, China landed on the moon as part of its Chang’e 5 mission before bringing almost two kilograms of rock back to Earth a few weeks later. At the site, analysis of reflectance spectra of the area surrounding the landing site had identified the presence of water at an average of 120 parts per million. It was then the first detection of water on the Moon in situ. More recently, analysis of the collected samples led to the discovery of a new mineral. The International Mineralogical Association confirmed the results. It is the sixth mineral ever identified on the Moon. The latter, called Changesite-(Y), is represented by a monocrystalline particle with a radius of about ten microns. “Changesite-(Y) is a kind of transparent colorless columnar crystal,” details the Chinese news agency Xinhua. “It was discovered from an analysis of lunar basalt particles by a research team at the Beijing Uranium Geology Research Institute, an affiliate of the National Nuclear Society.” The researchers also determined the concentration of helium-3 (figures not given) in their samples, and managed to deduce the “extraction parameters” necessary in order to collect this isotope from the returned samples. Illustration of the ascent vehicle of the Chang’e-5 mission lifting off from the lunar surface. Credits: China National Space Administration. Is helium-3 really worth it? Helium-3, the only known stable isotope that contains more protons than neutrons (2:1), is considered a promising potential fuel for nuclear fusion. In theory, a deuterium/helium-3 fusion reaction could release 164.3 megawatts of energy per gram of helium-3, all without producing radioactivity. On Earth, the helium-3 approach, however, poses a number of problems. On the one hand, because a fusion with this element could only take place at temperatures much higher than those required in a tritium reactor for example (a few hundred million degrees). On the other hand, helium-3 is extremely rare and difficult to isolate on Earth. The main way to obtain it is to wait for the tritium in nuclear warheads and other associated stockpiles to decay and then collect it in small quantities. It occurs naturally in the Earth’s atmosphere, but in minute concentrations (7.2 parts per trillion). The surface of the Moon, on the other hand, could contain up to 1.1 million metric tons of helium-3. However, the costs associated with its operation would be astronomical. In fact, the highest estimated concentrations of helium-3 in lunar soil would be about fifty parts per billion. So you’d probably have to process 150 tons of regolith to harvest just one gram. Then you should bring it back to Earth. However, lunar helium mining remains an option for China. Finally, in addition to the Changesite-(Y) and Helium-3 announcements, the China National Space Administration also announced full state approval for the next three Phase 4 lunar missions. Therefore, Chang’ and 6, 7 and 8 will lay the foundations. of the future Chinese lunar research station.
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