One of the problems that modern Americans have is the way they get their information – like a few dots from much larger shotgun origins. Some dots miss the target by chance, and it’s difficult connecting those that hit into a comprehensive whole. This is especially true when many important dots come from several different disciplines and then get individually turned to mush by self-interested lobbies and politics. Anyone who still thinks that even “mainstream journalists” are not also politically biased in their 24-hour “news” cycles must be living under a rock. The following attempts to rise above the propaganda to draw sometimes obscure information from a half dozen different fields into one unified story – a task that becomes increasingly difficult in this age of individual specialization in ever smaller areas of expertise. This story takes on greater relevance as revolution now sweeps across the oil-rich Arab-Muslim Mid-East.
In August 2007 the Russians sent a small submarine to the ocean floor beneath the polar ice cap at the North Pole and planted a Russian flag made of indestructible titanium, thereby claiming that real estate – a vast swathe of territory thought to contain considerable oil, gas and mineral reserves – for Russia. The Arctic polar ice cap is a huge body of ice, from 10 to 65 feet thick (3 to 20 meters), which covers a widely varying area depending on Earth’s seasons. While most people dismissed the Russian feat as a grandstanding stunt, the mission was extremely risky because the highly advanced submarine had to navigate to great depths (14,000 feet/4268 meters) quite a distance away from its point of origin, confirm its position, plant the flag, and return to the mother ship within a set period to the precise small hole broken in the thick ice. It was somewhat of a technological feat in itself, a dangerous mission which very few other countries could have accomplished. And this for a country that now operates on a fraction of its former Soviet national budget, a budget that is about 13% (1/8th) of the US budget, a national budget considerably smaller than that of Australia. Even Canada’s budget is half again larger than Russia’s.
But the mission also set off a rather esoteric debate among small groups in other nations, including the US, that also claim portions of the Arctic around the North Pole region. All such claims are based on the internationally recognized “200-mile limit” (322 km) beyond national shores. Russia, however, stated that her claim was based on geology – the fact that the continental shelf sloping beneath the sea is an extension of Russian real estate. In the summer of 2007, most people were caught by surprise by the “audacity” of the Russian feat, but this was hardly a “new” story.
Six years earlier, in 2001, Moscow had argued before a formal UN commission under an existing international treaty that waters off its northern coast were in fact an extension of its maritime territory. The Russians have long believed the territory belonged to Russia; it was marked as such on Soviet maps from the 1920s. The claim was based on the argument that an underwater feature under the polar ice cap in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, was an extension of its continental territory. The Lomonosov Ridge is a string of underwater mountains rising 10,820 to 12,140 feet (3,300 to 3,700 meters) above the seabed formed by shifting tectonic plates; discovered in 1948, it is permanently covered by the polar ice cap, making scientific study difficult.
Russia had ratified the United Nations Convention on the “Law of the Sea”, which, among other things, limits the five nations bordering on the Arctic Ocean – Russia, Norway, Canada, the United States (via Alaska) and Denmark (via Greenland) – to 200 miles (322 km) of territorial waters.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), also called the “Law of the Sea” treaty, concluded in 1982, replaced all previous similar treaties and defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of Earth’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. Part XI of the Convention also provides for a regime relating to minerals on the seabed outside any state’s territorial waters. It establishes an “International Seabed Authority” (ISA) to authorize seabed exploration and mining in international waters and to collect and distribute seabed mining royalties. UNCLOS III came into force in 1994, a year after the 60th country signed it. To date, 161 countries, including Norway (1996), Russia (1997), Canada (2003), and Denmark (2004), have joined in the Convention. The European Union signed in 1998.
The United States is the only significant country among just 13 that has not signed the treaty – almost 30 years after it was finalized – even though the United States helped shape the Convention.
The hang-up in the US involves Part XI, which addresses seabed mining in international waters. In the United States there has been a long laborious “debate” over the ratification of the treaty, with criticism mainly from business interests and political conservatives who consider involvement in some international organizations and treaties as detrimental to US national interests. Others view the US position as “the biggest bully on the block” unwilling to submit to international laws that would subordinate its own commercial interests to those of a peaceful world. It is possible, however, that there are other concerns in the background. Under the treaty, anything beyond 200 miles (322 km) of national borders is “international waters”; accepting Russia’s claim concerning her national territory would dramatically extend Russia’s national borders into the Arctic – which might also affect international shipping and military submarine transit routes.
Under the treaty, the five nations around the Arctic are allowed to file claims to a UN commission for greater territory if they can prove that their continental shelves are geographically linked to the Arctic seabed. In 2001, Russia became the first country to file such a claim, arguing that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge was not merely a chain of mountains in international waters, but was actually an extension of Siberia’s continental shelf. The UN commission was not convinced and asked for seismology reports and sonar measurements to support Russia’s submission. With Denmark and Canada also claiming the area, a Russian and Canadian scientific team was sent to scientifically map the ridge in 2007. Russia then repeated its claim, with added emphasis provided by the submarine dive. The flag-planting only marked long on-going scientific efforts supporting the Russian position. Russia has repeatedly complied with all UN requests for further study and evidence, but the UN, probably due to US pressure, has yet to decide. And, since it is not party to the treaty, the US feels no compulsion to weigh in with a formal position.
Even if the 463,00 square mile (1,199,000 square km) sector is not awarded to Russia, it is unlikely any other country could seize it. If Russia is successful, however, its already mighty energy reserves would be given a massive boost – although there is still doubt about the technical feasibility of extracting oil and gas from deep beneath the forbidding Arctic Ocean.
But was this really her primary justification for the submarine mission? Russia already has very considerable energy reserves, some of which are in locations less remote than the Lomonosov Ridge but still very difficult to fully develop. Did Russia purposefully draw attention to her undersea efforts in order to set off an international debate for far more significant reasons – reasons that have nothing to do with the North Pole, or even with Earth. If principal players cannot resolve this issue under existing laws, there is real potential for far greater problems down the road.
Let’s shift gears for a moment.
Ever since the World War II Manhattan Project, man has wrestled with the problem of harnessing the energy contained in atomic reactions, usually involving quite stable hydrogen atoms, to produce a safe and reliable form of energy needed to fuel mankind’s massive needs. The two most common methods of nuclear reactions are fission and fusion.
Fission is the type of reaction that takes place in existing nuclear power plants (and nuclear-powered submarines) where energy is released when atoms are split apart.
Fusion is the opposite, and potentially far safer, reaction where atoms fuse together.
In nuclear fusion, two light atomic nuclei fuse together to form a heavier nucleus and release energy. Most design studies for fusion power plants involve using very powerful laser light to cause the fusion inside a small chamber and then using the fusion reactions to create heat, which is then used to operate a steam turbine, which in turn produces electricity. Nuclear fusion is what takes place in the Sun, the enormous mass and heat of which constantly places protons under such incredible pressure that they routinely fuse together releasing incredible amounts of energy every minute. The Sun is, in effect, a nuclear fusion reactor that billions of years ago achieved perpetual operation.
A man-made fusion reactor will heat plasma to temperatures that are ten times those in the core of the sun. Harnessing such extremes in an engineered chamber is extremely difficult but possible, and the amount of heat, steam and electricity generated is truly tremendous. Fusion also has the advantage over fission of producing enormously less radioactive waste, and waste that requires far less storage time. Fusion energy also produces none of the carbon waste that has been doing so much damage to our planet. So, fusion, the same energy source that powers our Sun and the other stars, produces no greenhouse gases and is more environmentally benign than fossil-fuel-energy or nuclear-fission-based energy.
However, the fusion of two hydrogen atoms also releases quite destructive radioactive neutrons which rather quickly degrade the chamber, requiring its frequent replacement at great cost and down time. Thus, trying to accomplish fusion with hydrogen atoms is not, or only barely, cost effective.
Scientists have long known that a non-radioactive isotope of helium, one called Helium-3, would be a greatly preferred atomic source since the lone high-energy proton produced can be contained using electric and magnetic fields, which results in direct electricity generation. So, with Helium-3 (usually in combination with Deuterium), both the great heat generated by the fusion and the release of the proton can be used to generate electricity – the former indirectly, the latter directly. With no released radioactive neutrons degrading the chamber or creating large quantities of radioactive waste, Helium-3 is an ideal material to use in fusion reactions.
Unfortunately, the stuff is extremely rare on Earth.
Helium-3 is continuously produced by the Sun in massive quantities and sent out into space on solar winds. But Earth’s atmosphere (and magnetic field) acts as a near total block to the penetration of Helium-3 to Earth’s surface. Most Helium-3 used by science on Earth is a by-product of nuclear weapons research and development. Helium-3 does occur naturally, although very rarely and in quite small amounts, on Earth’s mantle, entrapped there during planetary formation billions of years ago before Earth had an atmosphere. But there isn’t nearly enough of it to be useful or efficient.
The most advanced practical research with fusion energy in the United States is being conducted by the Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. Its scientists firmly believe that nuclear fusion is doable. The Lab’s National Ignition Facility is a laser-based inertial confinement fusion (ICF) research facility that uses powerful lasers to heat and compress a small amount of hydrogen fuel to the point where nuclear fusion reactions take place. NIF is the largest and most energetic ICF device built to date, and the first that is expected to reach the long-sought goal of “ignition” – the point when the fusion reactions become self-sustaining, reactions which could generate almost limitless amounts of energy without also generating radioactive wastes. “Ignition” is that point in the process when subsequent successive nuclear fusions become perpetual, and contained within the chamber, requiring no further external energy to keep them going.
(Addendum: In February 2014 scientists at the LLNL, for a brief instant, re-created a nuclear fusion reaction by firing 192 extremely powerful lasers at a capsule containing two hydrogen isotopes. The resultant pressure applied to the capsule fused the nuclei of the hydrogen atoms. That fusion generated temperatures higher than those at the center of the Sun, and those temperatures triggered additional nuclear reactions. For the first time scientists had generated more energy out of the fuel than was put into the fuel. The next step is to maintain the high pressures and temperatures long enough to achieve ignition. Using a reliable source of Helium-3 to achieve fusion would significantly simplify the technical requirements, speed the developmental process, and significantly reduce chamber and facility operational costs.) (See Footnote #1 for Germany’s achievement.)
Back during the Vietnam War the US sent a series of manned missions to the Moon during the period July 1969 to December 1972. A total of six moon landing missions during that brief four year window under NASA’s Apollo program enabled twelve humans, all Americans, to walk on the Moon, the last three also employing mechanical roving vehicles. To date, no other humans have touched the surface of the Moon, and the United States has not attempted return missions for the past 38 years. Several countries – Russia, Japan, the European Space Agency and India – have sent mechanical devices to the Moon’s surface, but so far only Russian missions have returned Moon minerals to Earth.
The American Apollo missions returned to Earth a total of 241 pounds of rocks taken from different locations on the moon’s surface. Some of these rocks were presented as gifts to a number of foreign countries, including China and Russia. Most recipients regarded the rocks as rather useless curiosities, and, in fact, most of those given away as formal gifts have disappeared over the years, probably into the black market.* Those that remained in US possession, however, have been preserved in their original state by NASA and subjected to periodic controlled studies in pristine environments. One of those studies revealed that the rocks contained a very large amount of Helium-3 – which makes sense since the Moon has no atmosphere or magnetic field to block its penetration to the surface and has had billions of years to build up huge quantities of the Sun gas now entrapped in its mantle.
At the dawn of the 21st century it occurred to a number of key people around the globe that the Moon is a vast deposit of Helium-3 just waiting to be strip mined – either by governments or by commercial enterprises – as a completely new kind of Mother Lode Persian Gulf. In January 2004 President Bush finally announced the birth of a new US space program, one intended to not only return humans to the Moon, but also to place a permanent manned colony on the Moon by 2020. Due to the nature of politics in the US anymore, most people dismissed this idea as little more than a publicity stunt, or another DC waste of tax dollars, and promptly forgot about it. But this program, although rather belated considering the efforts elsewhere, was (1) very real, and (2) of great importance for many reasons, including one very close to home: energy.
In 2004 some people in the political community were finally beginning to understand what the scientific community had been saying all along – that it was a great mistake for the US to abandon the Moon Apollo Program in the early 1970s under President Nixon. The original Apollo was, after all, the god of prophecy and sunlight.
(To illustrate the difference between Greatest Generation and Baby Boomer thinking and priorities, try this: The development of a single airplane – the new F-35 “fighter” – has so far cost 15 times what it cost to put a man on the Moon. Putting a man on the Moon was a first-ever human achievement of truly colossal (“impossible”) challenge starting from zero, while high tech airplanes and their industries have been around for a century. And yet no “fighter” has actually fought anyone for over a half century; they use those flying super-computers as mobile artillery pieces (that are much safer for the operator). The main utility that “fighter” bombers have is that they can be landed on, and launched from, moving aircraft carrier decks (but with greater difficulty than an unmanned cruise missile or drone providing a similar weapons capability). The F-35 is based on F-117 Nighthawk technology first fielded by the Greatest Generation in 1981 – 30 years ago.)
(By the way, Saturn’s moon Titan is even a better source of Helium-3 than our own Moon.)
President Bush’s 2004 announcement was anything but a publicity stunt. It made public the US’s entry into a race that had already begun quietly among a number of other major players, including China, Russia, Japan, Europe and India, and at least three major global corporations. Studies have confirmed that such mining expeditions are not only feasible, but potentially quite profitable as well. And the amount of Helium-3 that could relatively easily be returned to Earth would meet most of Earth’s energy needs for at least a thousand years into the future. Oil would be relegated primarily to lubricants and plastics, thereby losing its political and economic stranglehold on the world. Humans would be able to make much more sensible and effective use of Earth’s rapidly dwindling natural carbon-based resources – precious resources that are non-renewable.
The US Moon manned mission plan announced by President Bush, named Constellation, in order to keep costs down, drew heavily on Greatest Generation science and technology developed for the 1960s/70s Apollo missions, but used more powerful rockets to launch larger payloads. The initial mission would involve two nearly simultaneous launches – one containing the crew vehicle and one containing a rather large domicile facility. The two would join in Earth orbit for the trip to the moon, where they would separate for individual landings on the surface. The domicile facility would be capable of sustaining life for much longer than the original Apollo missions, and the crew vehicle would be capable of launch and return to Earth orbit and descent to sea similar to the Apollo crafts.
But the US is not the only party already working on such missions. China has also announced plans to place humans on the Moon by 2020. And all players already have very earnest efforts underway to thoroughly map the Moon’s surface with a wide range of geologic and topographic scientific orbiter missions. (See Footnote #2 – “Mapping The Moon” below for a summary of various key national efforts.) It cannot be argued that such efforts are for idle scientific curiosity alone. While some in the US continue to harbor doubt about Helium-3 fusion, quite obviously China, Russia and India believe that the challenges can be overcome.
Dividing Up The Prize
However, a critical question is: “Who owns the Moon?” In an analogy recently recreated subtly by the Russians under the Arctic Ocean, the US left its flag on the Moon, but stated that the missions were “For all Mankind.” Did the US actually stake a claim, as Russia did? If so, to what portions of the Moon? For what purpose? What was the legal basis? Did the claim include mineral rights? Water rights? Development rights? If not, how does the US intend to claim Moon real estate? Does each future Moon landing arrive with a large and potent military force to seize and defend its slice of the pie? Is Russia already testing the waters on such questions under the polar ice cap at the North Pole? That seems an entirely reasonable approach to important issues both of today and for tomorrow.
Mining the Moon without solid international treaties in place to avoid conflict, and Helium-3 controlled by only one or two players, presents the first great political challenge. Getting the Law of the Sea treaty to work properly on Earth would pave the way for a similar treaty for the Moon. But this seems unlikely as long as the United States stands almost alone as a non-participant on the sea treaty but a full player in a Moon race.
Russian thinking, under President Putin, is way ahead of almost everyone else’s in the West on such matters. But is Putin ahead of China? India?
The first thing the United States needs to do is sign the Law Of The Seas treaty, and begin immediately using it as a basis to craft an international treaty for the Moon. The idea is to avoid really stupid conflict – BEFORE conflict jumps up and “slaps us hard in the face”.
Then we need to establish mechanisms to get this new Helium-3 energy source to appropriate markets as rapidly and equitably as possible. There are three industries involved here – mining, transportation and power – all dependent on routine space travel and extended work in a space environment. If the federal government states its intention now with a basic concept about how it intends to manage this new energy industry for the US, and locks that policy in stone, then American commercial enterprises, and others, can begin now to plan for and invest in future development within a rather stable and predictable political environment. This would provide commercial enterprises with sufficient lead time to facilitate systematic planning which would, in turn, minimize their costs and seismic disruptions to affected industries.
While researchers continue to earnestly perfect the Helium-3 nuclear fusion process, the first government intention should be to gradually have nuclear fusion power plants replace plants that currently use undesirable carbon-based sources such as coal and gas and also deem that all future plants built be nuclear fusion plants using Helium-3, i.e., that coal and oil and gas, and nuclear hydrogen fission, will be phased out in favor of Helium-3 fusion. Since building nuclear fusion power plants, or retrofitting existing nuclear fission plants, will be a long, laborious and expensive process, obviously any phasing out of carbon-based fuels would take place over a significant period. However, the fusion plant construction process would not be nearly as long or as costly as for nuclear fission plants, but would still be considerable.
Nevertheless, such a government statement of intention would help establish the market value of Helium-3 and constitute the requisite incentive for both coal mining and coal power enterprises, as well as gas, oil and nuclear fission power interests, to plan to systematically shift to Helium-3 power by setting aside a healthy portion of their profits now for the development of moon mining technology and equipment, space transportation and plant construction or retrofitting. Ideally, consortiums should be established to accomplish what is necessary for each or all three parts of the equation, with government’s primary role being only that of involved management regulator.
Secondary intentions would be to establish the price of fusion-generated electricity low enough to also enable the routine power source for vehicles, so that vehicle designers and manufacturers, oil refineries, gasoline distribution systems and fuel retail outlets can also plan for the future, i.e., that the century-old internal combustion engine will be finally phased out in favor of electric powered vehicles, electric power that is generated by non-carbon-based fuel far more environmentally friendly.
Helium-3 nuclear fusion power has the potential to change the world for the better like no other technology in history. The United States government in recent times has always been trying to play catch-up with evolving technology and has a tendency to watch problems develop and grow without intelligent action or planning until the problem is so great that it can no longer be ignored but the solutions are nearly insurmountable. It’s a very safe bet that governments like China and Russia will not approach this “problem” with that same level of irresponsibility. Potential business profits and benefits for all are far too great not to approach this challenge with careful forethought and planning now.
The Russians did the world a great favor by planting their flag under the sea at the North Pole and drawing attention to a significant problem here on Earth that will literally explode in importance on the Moon. We need to wake up and fix the North Pole thing so that we can avoid great conflict down the road over the Moon. Then everyone can move forward sensibly by concentrating on developing a new global industry without getting wrapped up in stupid politics – both domestic and international – not to mention even more stupid wars.
(Note: A major public fear of fission nuclear energy involves the potential for fuel rods to over-heat and melt down in the absence or loss of an effective cooling mechanism, which could result from a variety of different circumstances. This could result in a breach of the reactor core, explosions or similar events which, in turn, could release large amounts of nuclear containments into the environment. Most such accidents that have occurred around the world involve human error or electric equipment failure with the use of water as a coolant. But it is possible to design passive coolant systems that do not rely on humans, electricity or water. The world’s first Loss-of-Fluid Test (LOFT) Reactor started up at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) (near Idaho Falls) on 12 March 1976. It repeatedly simulated loss-of-coolant accidents that could potentially occur in commercial nuclear power plants, and many safety designs for reactors around the world are based on these tests. One of the tests conducted at this facility successfully employed an automatic flow “fail-safe” passive cooling system using chemical reactions, rather than water, inside the core. Since this system was intended for large stationary nuclear facilities, it took a far back seat at the time to the US Navy’s work on smaller sea-borne nuclear power plants in which this cooling system was not feasible. Further work was effectively abandoned shortly thereafter when public regard for nuclear energy turned negative after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 – even though the system would have prevented that accident and others, including Japan’s Fukushima accident in 2011. LOFT experiments did help with Three Mile Island accident recovery efforts. The Lab’s EBR-II reactor was used for testing materials and design concepts to improve reactor safety, culminating in the tests of the inherently safe Integral Fast Reactor concept in 1986. These tests demonstrated the safe shutdown and cooling of the reactor without operator action following a simulated loss-of-cooling accident.)
No single human endeavor has spun off more benefits for Earth’s inhabitants than has America’s space program, but sooner or later all things run into money and politics. The new Moon program launched by President Bush in 2004, known as Constellation, ran into the Great Recession of 2008-11. By 2009 loud noises were being made in a Democrat-controlled US Congress about problems with a very costly program that was running deeply in the red. A rapidly “evolving” Constellation program soon involved sending astronauts first to the International Space Station, then to the Moon, and afterward to Mars and other destinations beyond from launches on the Moon, using new rocket launch vehicles, new space travel vehicles and new lunar extended life modules. (With no atmosphere and significantly less gravity, Moon launches are significantly easier, requiring far less fuel and energy thrust than on Earth to lift the same payload.) The plan was to manufacture hydrogen fuel from water found on the Moon, significantly reducing the amount of fuel that would have to be carried from Earth into space. Over just five years, the main goal of Constellation had inexplicably shifted from the Moon to Mars, and the fuel source had shifted from Helium-3 back to Hydrogen. No one knows how this stuff happens.
President Obama, a Democrat, was elected in 2008. His election insured Democrat control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, a one-party rule that very rarely occurs in the United States. In January 2010, President Obama submitted a budget to Congress that called for terminating the Constellation program. The program was “based largely on existing technologies, over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation”, according to President Obama’s budget report. The “over budget” and “behind schedule” parts were valid, but the other two were intentional parts of the original plan in order to keep construction costs and testing expenses down. Even though the program had purposefully decided to rely on a broad foundation of technology proven by the Apollo program, NASA has already spent more than $9 Billion on Constellation, including testing the Ares I rocket that was intended to replace the shuttle as transport from Earth to the International Space Station and beyond. The Ares I was the smallest of an ever larger series of rockets culminating in Ares V, all based on Apollo’s very reliable Saturn V design, for the really tremendous lift capability necessary for Constellation.
Congress, despite strong opposition from such experts as Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon in 1969, then passed a budget in 2010 that killed the Constellation program. With Constellation canceled, NASA will instead focus on commercial vendors to fly astronauts to space, if any are willing to accept the challenge for a major energy effort without a firm overall Congressionally enacted guidance and regulatory structure in place.
The United States space shuttle program, begun 30 years ago in 1981, is also scheduled to end with the last shuttle missions in 2011. The last three 2011 flights will rendezvous with the International Space Station. The 133rd flight Discovery, commanded by US Air Force Colonel Steve Lindsey, launched in February 2011. The 134th flight Endeavor, commanded by US Navy Captain Mark Kelly (the husband of Congresswoman Gilfords, who was shot by a mentally disturbed man in Tucson in January 2011), will launch in April 2011. The 135th and final flight Atlantis, commanded by US Navy Captain Christopher J. Ferguson, will launch in June 2011. With that final space shuttle flight, construction of the International Space Station, begun in 2000, will be considered complete, and all shuttles will be retired from service. The United States will then rely on proven Russian Soyuz rockets to boost its astronauts aboard Russian capsules to the space station until a commercial US launcher can be developed by the private sector, hopefully by 2015. None of this mentions Helium-3 on the Moon.
(When you consider what Russia is able to do with its budget, you have to wonder why Canada, for example, with a much larger budget, isn’t doing a LOT more on the global stage. Yet Canada, like all other western countries, depends on the US to “protect” it from .. Russia? Sometimes, in the Real World, you just have to suspend simple logic.)
The 2010 budget gives NASA $19 Billion for 2011, and $100 Billion over the next five years; the proposal also extends the International Space Station until 2020. (Critics of the ISS contend that the time and money spent on the ISS could be better spent on other projects, including the Moon. With no other nation or consortium, including Europe, willing to pick up the costs and maintenance responsibility for the $100 Billion ISS facility, estimated by ESA at $80 Billion over thirty years (or just $2.7 Billion a year), NASA had planned to cease support for the ISS in 2015 and de-orbit it in 2016. Even twenty years later Europe still relies on its “Cold” War tactic of getting the US to be the “someone else” who pays the big bills and does the really hard stuff for them. Russia still has plans to launch its detachable Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) to the ISS in late-2011.) Maybe by 2018 the Chinese will be ready to assume responsibility for the ISS and upgrade its capabilities, if the huge structure hasn’t already disintegrated upon entering Earth’s atmosphere in de-orbit.
The main focus of various other NASA projects also shifts the emphasis from the Moon to Mars, to the development of more powerful launch vehicles suitable to deep space flight from Earth launch. Although Ares I has been cancelled, the huge Ares IV and Ares V rockets remain in limbo. Manned space flight has been bumped down on the priority list below still more unmanned science and probe missions. With regards the Moon, it now seems a continued case of “Been there, done that.” Presumably, any entity that reaches the Moon first with the requisite manned capability is free to corner the Helium-3 market as their own – provided there’s also an industry structure in place somewhere on Earth to use it. (See Footnote #2.)
Michael Griffin, who resigned as head of NASA when President Obama took office, labeled the plan “disastrous”, similar to Richard Nixon’s cancellation of the Apollo program in the 1970s. “It means that essentially the US has decided that they’re not going to be a significant player in human space flight for the foreseeable future,” he told the Washington Post. The US will pay to ride along in capsules launched by Russian rockets, and only to the International Space Station. Essentially, the US political argument pits “government waste” against “pains of recession”, both of which are valid, especially in view of the way these big government projects never seem to go according to plan anymore and always sprout all sorts of extra bureaucracies and side projects. There is also very little broad vision and control to keep things tightly focused on the primary objective and on schedule.
The US government’s NASA is essentially out of the 21st century Moon race.
There has been no public discussion of Helium-3 or fusion energy in the United States.
The United States still has not signed the “Law Of The Seas” treaty.
The United Nations still has not ruled on Russia’s claim of the Lomonosov Ridge.
China is plowing ahead to reach the Moon on its tight 2020 schedule. So is India.
Russia continues to develop its huge oil and gas reserves and construct pipelines to dependent markets while partnering with both China and India on Moon exploration to augment her own independent Moon efforts.
The entire Mid-east is ablaze in revolution, and the cost of US gasoline is headed north of $5.00 a gallon – controlled by people who have never played a role in the global economy.
Americans are faced with another repeat of the six-month “oil price shock” that greeted young Baby Boomers in 1973 – 38 years ago – when OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo.
Vision, investment and responsible future planning were never strong points of the super-spoiled American Baby Boomers.
What did you think was going to happen?
P.S. I’ve been a big fan of human adventures beyond terra firma since US military test pilots first broke the sound barrier in jets, since the U-2 spy plane flew at the very fringes of Earth’s atmosphere, since John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the Moon, since Neil Armstrong became the first human to ever step on to another celestial body, but I have never been able to understand Baby Boomer “thinking” about space after that momentous event “for all mankind”. Once we had reached the Moon, the Baby Boomers lost interest in great human adventures, and for the next half century did little more than play around with “space stations” orbiting close to Earth and intended to eventually self-destruct upon re-entry. The science developed from those space stations has indeed been impressive, but all of it, and so much more, could have been duplicated on a similar station established on the firm surface of the Moon. And such a station would have formed the foundation of so very much more science and knowledge and experience needed to eventually travel to even more distant locations in our solar system. One such area of further development would have been the systematic construction of a facility to manufacture fuel and launch vehicles from an environment with only a fraction of Earth’s gravity. To me, it all seems like a half century wasted in infantile navel-contemplation. And now we are talking about by-passing the Moon and going straight for Mars – from an Earth launch, which requires truly enormous vehicles, just like gigantic Saturn-5 launch vehicles of a half century ago. A Moon way-station would have made a Mars mission enormously more doable and enormously less dangerous, with a much higher probability of success. But then no one will ever accuse the Baby Boomers of either brilliance or forethought.
* China was not one of those countries that discounted the Moon rocks. In 1978, when President Carter’s national security adviser Brzezinski visited China, he carried a special gift to the Chinese leaders on behalf of the American people. The gift was a Moon rock as small as a fingertip, stored carefully in a delicate box. Viewed from the outside it seemed large, but the contents actually weighed only one single gram. Part of the rock was immediately sent to Chinese scientific research institutions. “The Moon rock was cut into two. One half was carefully kept by government authorities, and we started research on the other half,” said one scientist. This was a chance for China to show its capacity to conduct outer space research. Incredibly, Chinese scientists completed at least 31 major studies on that one half-gram of Moon rock. The Chinese know what the Moon has to offer. Russia has also conducted extensive studies on Moon minerals in its possession.
Note: Is there water on the Moon? Recently science confirmed with a very high degree of probability that there are ice caps on the Moon made of water. And an American scientist has recently been able to do the “impossible”. Put simply, he succeeded in squeezing water at high temperature out of normal Moon rocks found everywhere on the surface. With water, you can not only sustain human existence on the Moon’s surface, but you can also use water to produce hydrogen fuel for further space travel. (Using the Moon as a launch pad would require far less energy, since gravity at its surface is only one-sixth that of Earth’s. This has benefits on Earth, too, since launch vehicles would have to lift less heavy fuel from the Earth’s surface.) And, even more importantly, under manufactured conditions, you can use water squeezed from rocks of grow plants – which, in turn, can manufacture oxygen – to provide Moon environments with their own life-sustaining atmosphere. With the proper planning and technology, mining Helium-3 on the Moon could also simultaneously produce life-sustaining water and oxygen plus hydrogen fuel.
Footnote #1. Germany Moves To The Front.
In the beginning there were two good but slightly different approaches to the fusion problem – one American and one Russian, each with their advantages and disadvantages. Having successfully split the atom for fission, America’s Greatest Generation was diverted from the far more fruitful fusion project for a while by the quest to conquer space – to put mankind on the Moon and establish a research lab in space orbit – but that diversion was always considered a temporary delay, a matter of slightly adjusted priorities. And then the Baby Boomers made it a permanent delay. After Soviet Russia went bankrupt and folded, the Germans eventually decided to advance the stagnant American approach, while the French worked with the mothballed Russian approach.
Scientists in Germany switch on nuclear fusion experiment
Associated Press, 3 February 2016, by Frank Jordans
GREIFSWALD, Germany (AP) — Scientists in Germany flipped the switch Wednesday on an experiment they hope will advance the quest for nuclear fusion, considered a clean and safe form of nuclear power.
Following nine years of construction and testing, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald injected a tiny amount of hydrogen into a doughnut-shaped device – then zapped it with the equivalent of 6,000 microwave ovens.
The resulting super-hot gas, known as plasma, lasted just a fraction of a second before cooling down again, long enough for scientists to confidently declare the start of their experiment a success. “Everything went well today,” said Robert Wolf, a senior scientist involved with the project. “With a system as complex as this you have to make sure everything works perfectly and there’s always a risk.”
Among the difficulties is how to cool the complex arrangement of magnets required to keep the plasma floating inside the device, Wolf said. Scientists looked closely at the hiccups experienced during the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland more than five years ago to avoid similar mistakes, he said.
The experiment in Greifswald is part of a world-wide effort to harness nuclear fusion, a process in which atoms join at extremely high temperatures and release large amounts of energy that’s similar to what occurs inside the sun.
Advocates acknowledge that the technology is probably many decades away, but argue that – once achieved – it could replace fossil fuels and conventional nuclear fission reactors. ((“decades away” is the phrase I always heard during the 1950s and 1960s, but, since everyone already fully understood what was required, we all firmly believed back then that American scientists would succeed with a fully functioning reactor no later than 1980. Sadly, the Baby Boomers were just not up to the task, were far better at playing with little toys while running up astronomical debts.))
Construction has already begun in southern France on ITER, a huge international research reactor that uses a strong electric current to trap plasma inside a doughnut-shaped device long enough for fusion to take place. The device, known as a tokamak, was conceived by Soviet physicists in the 1950s and is considered fairly easy to build, but extremely difficult to operate.
The team in Greifswald, a port city on Germany’s Baltic coast, is focused on a rival technology invented by the American physicist Lyman Spitzer in 1950. Called a stellarator, the device has the same doughnut shape as a tokamak but uses a complicated system of magnetic coils instead of a current to achieve the same result.
The Greifswald device should be able to keep plasma in place for much longer than a tokamak, said Thomas Klinger, who heads the project. “The stellarator is much calmer,” he said in a telephone interview ahead of the start. “It’s far harder to build, but easier to operate.”
Known as the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator, or W7-X, the 400-million-euro ($435 million) device was first fired up in December using helium, which is easier to heat. Helium also has the advantage of “cleaning” any minute dirt particles left behind during the construction of the device.
Over the coming years the device, which isn’t designed to produce energy itself, will slowly increase the temperature and duration of the plasma with the goal of keeping it stable for 30 minutes, Wolf said. “If we manage 2025, that’s good. Earlier is even better,” he said.
Scientists hope that the W7-X experiment will allow them to test many of the extreme conditions such devices will be subjected to if they are ever to generate power.
David Anderson, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin who isn’t involved in the project, said the project in Greifswald looks promising so far. “The impressive results obtained in the startup of the machine were remarkable,” he said in an email. “This is usually a difficult and arduous process. The speed with which W7-X became operational is a testament to the care and quality of the fabrication of the device and makes a very positive statement about the stellarator concept itself. W7-X is a truly remarkable achievement and the worldwide fusion community looks forward to many exciting results.” ((i.e., they achieved what Lawrence-Livermore has not – with a process that LLNL invented and owns.))
While ((Baby Boomer)) critics have said the pursuit of nuclear fusion is an expensive waste of money that could be better spent on other projects, Germany has forged ahead in funding the Greifswald project, costs for which have reached 1.06 billion euros in the past 20 years if staff salaries are included. ((As a group, the Baby Boomers have never once demonstrated an ability to think beyond next week, and only with the emphasis on “me” and “now” rather than on “us” and “our children”, much less “the future”.))
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, personally pressed the button at Wednesday’s launch. “As an industrial nation we want to show that an affordable, safe, reliable and sustainable power supply is possible, without any loss of economic competitiveness,” she said. “The advantages of fusion energy are obvious.” ((The only people who never saw “the obvious” were the Baby Boomers. Angela Merkel remains the world’s best actual leader of the first 15 years of the 21st century, followed closely by Vladimir Putin.))
The Polish government, European Union and the U.S. Department of Energy also contributed funding for the project. The U.S. contribution, which included crucial error-correcting coils and imaging equipment, gives American scientists a chance to help develop cutting-edge technology and participate in the experiment ((on the cheap)), said Edmund J. Synakowski, the agency’s associate director for fusion energy sciences. ((Keep in mind that this was always an American quest, but the Baby Boomers simply didn’t want to invest what was required for success.))
Although there are about a dozen stellarator experiments around the world, including in the U.S., Japan, Australia and Europe, scientists say the Greifswald device is the first to match the performance of tokamaks. “If the United States isn’t at the table once scientists start asking questions that can only be answered here, then we’re out of the game,” Synakowski said. ((The Chinese and Indians are also working the problem.))
Footnote #2. Mapping The Moon
The pace of lunar exploration has accelerated dramatically, with as many of nine new major missions completed, planned or underway for the current decade. These missions, of which the most important for cartography are Chang’e-1 (China), Chandrayaan-1 (India), Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (USA), SELENE (Japan), Luna-Glob 1 (Russia) and SMART-1 (Europe), will return a volume of data exceeding that of all previous lunar and planetary missions combined. Except for China, no country or government entity has stated an official interest in Helium-3 on the Moon, but all exploring the Moon are believed to be aggressively investigating the topic. A key indicator is interest in shaded areas on the Moon’s surface such as craters, where Helium-3 concentration is at least five times greater than in Sun-exposed areas. The US, India and Japan are known to have explored such areas in detail.
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), built by Goddard for NASA and launched in June 2009, is conducting the most comprehensive surveys of the Moon the US has ever attempted, using cameras that can image an object as small as a football. Its mission is to make a 3-D map of the Moon’s surface, originally to help scout for landing sites for Constellation’s plan to return astronauts to the Moon. LRO has also been hunting for signs of water ice on the Moon, as well as help study the irregular lunar gravity field, caused by dense concentrations of mass beneath the surface. One component on the LRO conducts three investigations. Two tasks focus on mapping hydrogen content over the entire Moon and on testing for the presence of water-ice deposits at the bottom of permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles. The third task corresponds to the determination of neutron contribution to the total radiation dose at an altitude of 50 km (80 km) above the Moon. The LRO is nearing the end of its scientific mission. Astrobotic Technology is a privately held American company based in Pittsburgh that hopes to claim the US$20 million Google Lunar X Grand Prize by sending a lunar lander, lunar rover and 240-pound (109 kg) payload to the Moon in 2013-14, a goal it accepted in 2008.
Chang’e-1, China’s lunar orbiter, launched in October 2007, collected all the data needed to draw its first full map of the moon surface in very considerable detail. Among its stated primary missions were: Obtaining three-dimensional images of the lunar surface so as to provide a reference for planned future soft landings; Analyzing and mapping the quantity and distribution of various chemical elements on the lunar surface; and Probing the features of the lunar soil and assessing its depth, as well as the amount of Helium-3 present. Chang’e-1 operated for 17 months until March 2009, when it intentionally impacted the surface of the Moon. The launch of this orbiter was the first step of the country’s three-stage lunar probe program, which also includes the launch of a lunar rover for a soft landing and a second rover that is to collect lunar soil and stone samples for research. Chang’e 2 was launched in October 2010 with a mission similar to Chang’e 1, but with more sophisticated equipment. Chang’e-3, including both a landing craft and rover, will be launched in 2013. In 2006, the Russian international news agency RIA Novosti revealed that Russia and China were working as partners on the Moon, and that the two countries hoped to conclude a joint Moon exploration agreement by the end of that year. “A number of contracts have been signed involving both Russian and Chinese enterprises,” said Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian Space Agency. No further information on this partnership have been made public.
Chandrayaan-I, India’s lunar orbiter launched in October 2008 and operated until August 2009 had well defined objectives. First, it prepared a three-dimensional atlas of both the near and far side of the Moon. Second, the mission conducted a chemical and mineralogical mapping of the entire lunar surface to ascertain the distribution of natural resources on the Moon’s surface. Due to technical failures, Chandrayaan-I operated for 312 days rather than the intended two years, but did achieve 95 percent of its planned objectives. Some reporting about Chandrayaan-I at the time of launch stated that a primary objective of the mission was to try and locate Helium-3 on the Moon’s surface, but mission officials have not confirmed that and have reported no Helium-3 findings. If scientists can devise ways of transporting Helium-3 and harnessing it for nuclear reactors, it will solve immense power problems that plague regions across India. “Every space power is trying to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft to have early access to the abundant natural resources on the Moon and colonize them,” said an ISRO scientist in October 2008. Russia is providing the lander vehicle that will carry India’s rover on the Chandrayaan-II mission in 2013.
Luna-Glob 1 is scheduled to be launched in 2012. Russia abandoned its lunar exploration program in the mid-1970s when the US also ceased its efforts, but the idea of exploring the Moon has been revisited recently due to ambitious international projects to develop the Moon’s resources and to use it as a stepping-stone for further space exploration. The unmanned 2012 flight will include a lunar orbiter that will fire 12 penetrators across diverse regions of the Moon to create a seismic network, which will be used to study lunar earthquakes and the Moon’s origin. The device will first be tested through NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter project. An objective of the mission is also to detect water ice deposits in the polar zones of the Moon; Luna-Glob 1 will include a soft lander at the south pole to look for ice. Russia is also planning five other unmanned launches to the Moon by 2015. In 2007 the head of the Russian Space Agency announced plans to send cosmonauts to the Moon by 2025 and establish a permanent manned base there in 2027-2032. Presumably they are still on that schedule.
SELENE (Selenological and Engineering Explorer), launched in September 2007, was intended to probe the origin and evolution of the moon. It sent stunningly detailed information in creating the first-ever high definition global topographic maps of the Moon using 1,127,392 point measurements taken with its laser altimeter. SELENE collected well over ten million 3D data points to create the most detailed topographic map in the history of space exploration. (The detailed altitude and geological data is provided to Google for free to make Google Moon 3-D.) JAXA, Japan’s space agency, announced that the SELENE mission had gathered detailed information regarding the mineral composition of parts of the Moon’s surface, including thorium, potassium, and uranium sites. Undoubtedly, they also zeroed in on potential Helium-3 sites. The topographical and mineral information will be crucial for planning for future manned lunar missions, including the foundation of permanent lunar posts. SELENE also conducted a detailed gravity map of the far side of the Moon. After successfully orbiting the moon for 20 months, the main orbiter was intentionally crashed onto the lunar surface in June 2009. Japanese officials announced that they hope to send a manned mission to the moon by 2025.
EUROPE (European Space Agency):
SMART-1 (SMART stands for Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology) was launched in September 2003 and deliberately crashed into the Moon’s surface in September 2006. As well as testing a new solar-powered ion drive for deep space missions, significantly reducing size and weight, SMART-1 did the first comprehensive inventory of key chemical elements in the lunar surface. It also investigated the theory that the Moon was formed following the violent collision of a smaller planet with Earth, four and a half thousand million years ago. SMART-1 also conducted lunar imaging and looked for water ice on the Moon.
(See also “Paradox“, posted separately.)