Moon: Science Notes
“Moon,” starring Sam Rockwell and directed by Duncan Jones, is being released June 12, 2009 by Sony Pictures Classics.
Though MOON is a work of fiction, the hard science depicted in the film is rooted in fact. Helium-3 (HE-3), the substance that the film’s lunar mining operation is harvesting, is a light, non-radioactive isotope of Helium. He-3 has been identified as an essential ingredient for nuclear fusion, a still-unproven process that could potentially generate vast amounts of clean energy to supply the Earth’s energy needs. Unlike the process of nuclear fission, used in nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants, nuclear fusion would create no radioactive waste. In nuclear fission, energy is released when an atom’s nucleus is split. In nuclear fusion, multiple atomic nuclei bearing the same valence charge would be fused together, creating a release of energy. Researchers are currently using He-3 in their efforts to generate a controlled nuclear fusion reaction.
He-3 on Earth
Helium-3 occurs very rarely as a natural deposit in the Earth’s crust. He-3 is also produced in minute quantities as a byproduct of the decay of tritium, a material that accumulates in nuclear fission processes. Scientists have acquired some He-3 for fusion research by dismantling nuclear warheads, but it would be impossible to amass or manufacture enough He-3 by known methods on Earth to adequately fuel nuclear fusion plants of the future.
He-3 on the Moon
On our moon, however, He-3 occurs in far greater abundance as a deposit laid down in the lunar soil, or regolith, by solar winds (our sun is a vast fusion reactor). Lunar rock and regolith samples brought back to Earth by Apollo missions revealed He-3 in small but significant concentrations. To extract the lunar He-3, massive amounts of regolith would be scraped up and superheated. The He-3 extracted would be refined to a highly concentrated “superliquid” (the 1996 and 2003 Nobel Prizes in Physics were awarded to scientists who identified and study this superliquid occurrence of He-3). The concentrated He-3 would have to be transported back to Earth for use as a nuclear fusion fuel; it is estimated that a single Space Shuttle payload could supply the United States’ energy needs at current consumption for a year (assuming, of course, that we figure out how to create a nuclear fusion reaction in a controlled environment). It is quite conceivable that advances in fusion technology could abruptly make the moon’s He-3 a vastly valuable resource, setting off a new space race to capture and control the lunar He-3 supply.
He-3 Mining in MOON
In MOON, He-3 resource extraction is owned and managed by private corporate enterprise. MOON depicts huge, automated harvesters scraping the moon’s surface; inside the big beasts, the lunar soil is heated and processed, and the extracted He-3 is refined. Sam Bell’s job, in addition to maintaining the station and mining equipment, is to collect the canisters of concentrated He-3 extract and launch them back to Earth in rocket-propelled capsules—which eventually becomes the means of his own escape from his preordained fate on the moon.
About the Moon:
• The moon travels around the earth and is the earth’s only natural satellite (it’s the 5th largest natural satellite in the solar system).
• The moon is the only astronomical object to which humans have traveled and landed.
• The moon is about 4.5 billion years old.
• The moon is about 250,000 miles (384,400 kms) from the earth.
• The moon travels at 2288 miles an hour (3683 km per hour).
• The President of the United States created the national Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on October 1, 1958.
• NASA's first high-profile program involving human spaceflight was Project Mercury, an effort to learn if humans could survive the rigors of spaceflight. On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American to fly into space, when he rode his Mercury capsule on a 15-minute suborbital mission. John H. Glenn Jr. became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962.
• “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Neil A. Armstrong uttered these famous words on July 20, 1969, when the Apollo 11 mission fulfilled Kennedy's challenge by successfully landing Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. on the Moon.
• Six of the Apollo missions (11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17) landed on the moon to study soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields and solar wind.
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