India's space program wants to go where there was no nation before – to the south side of the moon. And once it gets there, it will explore the potential for mining a source of waste-free nuclear energy that could be worth trillions of dollars.
NASA will launch a rover in October to explore new ground on the Moon surface and analyze crust samples for signs of water and helium-3. This isotope is so limited on Earth that it is so abundant on the moon that it could theoretically meet the global energy needs for 250 years if it were harnessed.
"The countries that have the ability to bring this source from the Moon to Earth will determine the process," said K Sivan, chair of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). "I do not just want to be a part of them, I want to lead them."
The mission would consolidate India's place among the research fleet that races on the Moon, Mars and beyond for scientific, commercial or military gains. Governments of the US, China, India, Japan and Russia are competing with start-ups and billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson to bring satellites, robo-lander, astronauts and tourists into the cosmos.
The rover's landing is a step in a planned series for ISRO involving bringing a space station into orbit and possibly an Indian crew on the moon. The government still needs to set a timeframe.
"We are ready and waiting," said Sivan, an aviation engineer who joined ISRO in 1
US President Donald Trump signed a directive urging astronauts to return to the moon, and NASA's proposed $ 19 billion budget this tax year calls for the introduction of a lunar orbiter by early 2020.
ISRO's estimated budget less than a tenth of that – about $ 1.7 billion – but performing tricks has been a trademark of the agency since the 1960s.
The upcoming mission will cost approximately $ 125 million – less than a quarter of the co-founder of Snap Inc., Evan Spiegel compensation last year, which, according to the Bloomberg Pay Index, highest for a listed company executive.
This will not be India's first moon mission. Launched in October 2008, the Chandrayaan-1 ship completed more than 3,400 orbits and launched a probe that detected water molecules in the surface for the first time.
The upcoming launch of Chandrayaan-2 includes an orbiter, a lander and a rectangular rover. The solar-powered six-wheeled vehicle collects information for at least 14 days and covers an area with a radius of 400 meters. The rover sends pictures to the lander and the lander will send them back to ISRO for analysis.
A primary goal, however, is to search for deposits of helium-3. Solar winds have bombarded the moon with huge amounts of helium-3 because it is not protected by a magnetic field like Earth.
The presence of helium-3 was confirmed in moon samples of the Apollo missions and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, a geologist who walked the moon in December 1972, is an avid proponent of helium-3 mining.
"It is believed that this isotope could provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor because it is not radioactive, so it does not produce hazardous waste products," said the European Space Agency.
The Moon is estimated to contain 1 million tonnes of helium-3, although only about a quarter of it could be realistically brought to Earth, said Gerald Kulcinski, director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former member of NASA Advisory Council.
That's still enough to cover the world's current energy needs for at least two, and p maybe five centuries, Kulcinski said. He estimated the value of helium-3 at about $ 5 billion per tonne, meaning that 2.50 million tons would be worth trillions.
Of course there are numerous obstacles to overcome before the material can be used – including the logistics of collecting and delivering back to Earth and building fusion power plants to convert the material into energy. These costs would be stratospheric.
"If that can be cracked, India should be part of that effort," said Lydia Powell, who heads the Center for Resources Management at the New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation. "If the costs are reasonable, it will change a game, no doubt."
Besides, it will not be easy to mine the moon. Only the US and Luxembourg have enacted legislation that would allow commercial companies to mine what they have extracted from space, said David Todd, head of space at Seradata Ltd. based in Northampton. There is no international treaty on this topic. 19659002] "At some point it will be like fishing in international waters in the sea," said Todd. "While a nation-state can not hold international waters, the fish become the property of their once-fished fishermen."
The Indian government is responding to the influx of commercial companies in space by developing laws to regulate satellite launches, corporate registrations and liability, said GV Anand Bhushan, partner in Chennai at the law firm Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. It does not include the moon degradation. But the nation's only spaceman is not fully on board to turn the moon into a business location.
Rakesh Sharma, who spent nearly eight days aboard a Russian spaceship in 1984, said nations and private companies should instead work together to develop human colonies elsewhere, as the earth has run out of resources and faced with potential disasters such as asteroid strikes becomes.
"You can not go to the moon and draw boundaries," Sharma said. "I want India to show that we can use space technology for the benefit of people."