Fight of the Moon Goddesses

May 04, 2009
*Special to asia!

The hunt for new sources of energy on the Moon is propelling a new space race.

Upon the marble screen the candlelight is winking

The Milky Way is slanting and morning stars are sinking.

Change-E should regret to have stolen the immortal elixir,

Night after night she broods o’er the celestial ocean.

Chang’e, by Li Shangyin (813 – 858 AD)


Of the numerous Chinese deities, Chang’e, the moon goddess must be the loneliest. Legend has it that she was banished to the moon for either betraying her husband or defying him for the good of her people. Either way she is fated to spend an eternity on her own, with no one but a jade rabbit as a companion.




In real life, the moon could soon become very crowded. Last year China and Japan each launched an unmanned spacecraft to the moon. The Chinese named their vessel Chang’e 1, while the Japanese called theirs Kaguya, a legendary moon princess.

Both Chang’e 1 and Kaguya are now orbiting the moon, gathering information about the lunar surface. They will return to earth sometime next year.

The successful launch of Chang’e 1 and Kaguya made China and Japan members of a very exclusive club: nations with the capacity to explore the moon. Until last year the club only had two members, the US and Russia, and only the US had managed to put human beings on the lunar surface.

Is it only bragging rights that motivate China and Japan to pour resources into their lunar programmes? Not really. There are also deep economic reasons.

China and Japan are oil-importing nations. They need oil to keep their economy growing. But demand – from China, India and other Asian nations such as Vietnam – have sent the oil price soaring to record levels, close to US$100 per barrel. It could continue to go up as populations increase and become more affluent. It is said that the global demand for energy in 2050 will be six times that of today, when the world’s population doubles to 12 billion.

A high oil price leads to inflation and social unrest. Left unchecked, it would eventually strangle the economies. It is crucial for China and Japan, as well other nations, to find an alternative to oil.

But none is available. There are half a dozen possibilities, such as biofuel, wind, solar and geothermal energy. All are being used in some parts of the world. On a small scale, they are good substitutes for oil. But none has the potential to replace oil as the main source of energy for the world.

The only possible candidate is nuclear energy. But that brings its own set of problems. All commercial nuclear reactors today use the fission process, which smashes atoms apart to release energy for electricity. The process also creates radioactive materials that will last for thousands of years. A growing number of countries, China among them, are driven to nuclear energy by high oil prices. But this has its limits. The widespread use of nuclear fission reactors would end up poisoning the Earth and making many parts of it uninhabitable.

There is another type of nuclear energy involving fusion. This works by combining atoms into new elements. Energy is also released in great amounts in the process. Fusion is “clean” in that it does not create radioactivity. But it is much more difficult to achieve. All fusion reactors in existence today are in laboratories. None has achieved energy parity, which means they consume more energy than they produce. Obviously such reactors are not commercially feasible, no matter how environmentally friendly they are.

A way to make fusion reactors more efficient is to change the fuel. An ideal fuel would be helium 3, an isotope of the inert gas helium. Combining helium 3 with deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, would release a great amount of energy as well as the clean products helium and hydrogen, which could be sold for commercial purposes.

The earth has virtually no helium 3, though there is plenty on the moon. There are an estimated 1 million tons of the element buried all over the top few metres of the powdery lunar soil, much like the sweet black crude that is buried just under the sand in Saudi Arabia. Just four tons of helium 3 – collected on two trips of a space shuttle – would be enough to power the US for a year. Ten to 15 tons would fulfil the energy needs of the entire world. In all, the helium 3 on the moon can sustain earth for thousands of years.

At the moment, using helium 3 for nuclear fusion exists only in theory. Scientists say it may take 15 years before they can produce a workable helium 3 fusion reactor. And of course they may never be able to produce one, given the uncertain nature of scientific breakthroughs.

This has not stopped nations from trying to stake a claim on helium 3. In America, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has revived its lunar programme under a mandate by President George Bush. One of NASA’s objectives is to search for pockets of concentration of helium 3.

The Chinese have the same objective. Just four years ago, China denied its lunar programme was related to the element. Today it openly admits the connection. “Whoever first conquers the moon will benefit first (in getting helium 3)”, Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China’s lunar programme, told state-owned media.

The Russians are more belligerent. In May last year Russia turned down America’s invitation to jointly explore the moon though it said it would continue to work with it on the international space station, which orbits the Earth. Erik Galimov, a Russian space geologist, told the Izvestia newspaper that NASA's plan to colonize the moon will "enable the US to establish its control of the global energy market 20 years from now and force the rest of the world on their knees as hydrocarbons run out."

Like the club of nations owning nuclear weapons, the club of moon-going nations could soon see an explosion of membership. South Korea has started a lunar programme. So has India. And the European Space Agency is also looking moonward.

For a while, at least, Chang’e (the moon goddess, not the spacecraft) will see no human visitors though there could be many ships in her sky. Under its plan, China would only put taikonauts on the moon in 2020 or after. American astronauts, who last walked the moon in 1972, may return after 2015 or thereabouts. The Russians, the Japanese, and perhaps even the South Koreans, the Indians and the Europeans could all turn up around that period.

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


Contact Han Shih