April 14, 2024

Brighton Journal

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Mining helium-3 on the moon has been talked about for a long time, and now one company will try it

Mining helium-3 on the moon has been talked about for a long time, and now one company will try it
Zoom in / This is not a spice harvester. It is an extractor that pulls helium-3 from the surface of the moon.

Interlune

Two of Blue Origin's first employees, former president Rob Meyerson and chief architect Gary Lai, have created a company that seeks to extract helium-3 from the moon's surface, bring it back to Earth and sell it for applications here.

The company has been operating stealthily since its founding in 2022, but it emerged on Wednesday by announcing that it had raised $15 million, in addition to previous rounds of angel investments.

This is a notable announcement, because although the funding is small, the potential impacts are large. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the “lunar economy” in spaceflight but little clarity on what that means. Most companies that have announced business plans to launch rockets to the Moon, land on it, or conduct other activities there do so with the intent of selling lunar services or water to NASA or other parties fulfilling government contracts. In other words, there was no wealth creation, and at the end of the day, NASA is the customer.

The current moon rush is a bit like the California gold rush without the gold.

By harvesting helium-3, which is scarce and in limited supply on Earth, Interlune could help change that calculus by extracting value from resources on the Moon. But many questions about this approach remain. First of all, the company must devise a way to extract gas from lunar regolith, the abrasive, rocky, dirt-like material found on the moon's surface. Then he must return the helium-3 to Earth. There is currently no way to do this. Finally, it must demonstrate that there will be a large and sustainable market for Earth-stable isotopes to support its business.

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However, with NASA investing tens of billions of dollars in the Artemis program to return humans to the Moon, Myerson is convinced that the time has come to leverage transportation, energy and other resources to start a mining company on the Moon. This was not possible at any time before now. Perhaps it is hardly possible today.

“Helium-3 is the only resource that has a price high enough to support going to the moon and returning it to Earth,” Merson said in an interview. “There are customers who want to buy it today.”

Useful helium isotope

Helium-3 is a stable isotope of helium containing two protons and one neutron. It is produced by fusion in the Sun and transported by the solar wind. However, Earth's magnetosphere deflects this flow of particles away from the planet.

The substance does not occur naturally on Earth, and it exists in very limited quantities as a result of nuclear weapons tests, nuclear reactors, and radioactive decay. One liter costs a few thousand dollars, and there are efforts to recycle it by the US Department of Energy. Because there is no magnetosphere around the Moon, it is believed that large amounts of helium-3 are trapped in pockets of lunar regolith.