Why Are We Going Over the Moon on ISRO and Helium-3 All Over Again?

If we’re going to get excited about ISRO mining the moon for He-3, a fuel that could be used for nuclear fusion, it may be prudent to first produce surplus power from fusionable isotopes – a breakthrough that is still years away.

There has been a surge of ‘news reports’ on various platforms, including Hindustan Times, Financial Express, Deccan Chronicle and the Times of India, talking about the Indian Space Research Organisation’s plans to mine the moon for helium-3 (He-3). It’s unbelievable how quickly we’re having this ‘debate’ again: we don’t know how to use He-3 as a source of energy, a claim that all the reports are using to justify their talking about it. Apparently this isotope can be used in nuclear fusion reactors – conveniently forgetting we’re over a decade away from successfully fusing the lightest fusionable isotopes in an energy-surplus reaction. All the reports also appear to be rooted in one published by Bloomberg Quint (BQ), which quotes K. Sivan, ISRO chairman, as saying, “The countries which have the capacity to bring that source from the moon to Earth will dictate the process. I don’t want to be just a part of them, I want to lead them.” Laudable attitude but we are getting carried away here. The idea of mining helium on the moon has been discussed by NASA and the European Space Agency but with far less noise. The BQ report made it okay to talk about He-3 again after the fiasco in April last year, when a slew of reports misquoted a former ISRO scientist to create an unnecessary news cycle, by doing the following: discussing the potential of He-3 fusion to power the world for “250 years”; tying in the responsibilities of the senior-most official of the Indian space programme with an emotional aspiration; and acknowledging that the necessary tech doesn’t yet exist. This is what climate change reporters would call false balance: giving readers the impression that the article is ‘balanced’ because it makes room for voices from all sides, without stopping to ask whether some of these voices are actually making sense. The moon contains a substance that we think we know how to use – and we are letting this belief bias our decision-making. The moon and multiple near-Earth objects contain lots of materials found much less abundantly on Earth; why are we not hankering after those? Is it only because we don’t yet have reasonable theories at hand about how to exploit them? ISRO has an impending moon mission, in October/November this year, over the course of which the organisation hopes to deploy its first rover on the lunar surface. So it feels like we’re paying He-3 attention because a) it hasn’t yet been exploited by Earth-based organisations and b) millions of Indians long for ISRO to lead the world one way or another. If we were mere months away from launching a mission to Venus, perhaps we would be seeing a lot of reports about extracting energy from that part of the Solar System. Even if the project is improbable, could public interest in He-3 mining and fusion at least boost ISRO’s budgetary prospects? It can’t, for three reasons:

1. He-3 fusion is untested technology. Considering prevailing commitments like the Paris Agreement, it would simply be foolish for India to attempt stewarding a nuclear fusion programme involving heavier isotopes when a prototype hydrogen fusion experiment (ITER) itself has sucked in over Rs 96,550 crore (about 9% of which India contributes) while another billion-dollar facility in the US has been struggling to kickstart fusion chain reactions for over four years now.

2. ISRO needs the money for other things (self-explanatory)

3. It’s not why we’re going to the moon – at least, it should not be the reason we’re going to the moon: to extract a ‘fuel’ we we have some ideas about. Instead, the Chandrayaan 2 mission has other, more decidedly laudable, goals and we shouldn’t be worming our way out of trying to understand them and and the nuanced value they promise instead.

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