According to extremetech, the Moon is our closest celestial neighbor and the only other body apart from Earth where humans have ever set foot, but there is still a lot we don’t know about it. China’s Chang’e-5 mission in 2020 returned the first lunar samples since the end of the Apollo program in 1976, and scientists now report the discovery of a new mineral in the payload. Even more interestingly, even smaller crystallized minerals may hold the key to generating energy through nuclear fusion.
Chang’e-5 landed on the Moon on December 1, 2020, just days after its launch from China’s Hainan Island Space Center. The rover, without wasting time, collected 3.7 pounds (1.7 kg) of lunar regolith over the next two Earth days. Samples were loaded into an ascent vehicle and sent back to Earth on 3 December, landing on 16 December. This made China the third country after the US and the Soviet Union to return lunar material to Earth.
A new mineral, Changesite-(Y), was discovered from the moon samples retrieved by #China‘s Chang’e-5 probe, making China the third country to discover a new mineral on moon, China Atomic Energy Authority said on Friday. pic.twitter.com/gieIWN8SMg
— People’s Daily, China (@PDChina) September 9, 2022
Chinese scientists now report the discovery of a new mineral in those samples. The transparent crystal is smaller in diameter than a human hair, and is thought to have formed about 1.2 billion years ago when the area discovered by Chang’e-5 was still volcanically active. The mineral is named Changesite-(Y) after the same moon goddess who gave the rover its name.
According to Chinese state media, the Chinese Atomic Energy Authority has confirmed the presence of helium-3 inside the crystal. This isotope of helium is rare on Earth, but scientists (and science-fiction writers) have long speculated that it may be present in significant amounts on the Moon. Compared to other forms of the element, helium-3 produces fewer radioactive byproducts when undergoing fusion. This makes fusion attractive as a fuel source for power generation, a theoretical way to generate energy in the same way that stars do. The technology to sustain fusion on Earth is still elusive, but access to helium-3 could help get us there.
Like the US and other astronaut countries, China has expressed interest in mining resources on the Moon. It focuses mostly on in-situ resource utilization, an approach to space exploration where missions collect materials at the destination to reduce the need to bring them from Earth. However, if the changesite-(Y) is discovered to be a massive deposit on the Moon, it could be mined as a source of helium-3 and sent back to Earth. However, we have a long way to go before that happens.