Chinese rover begins its journey to monetize the moon (with video)

Yutu head

The Chinese space push is in full swing, but the CNSA (Chinese NASA) is nowhere near ready to compete in terms of PR. When Chang’e 3 — China’s first lunar rover — rolled from its lander this week, it made its country one of just three to ever drive a lander on the Moon. In celebration of the event, Chinese national news services broadcast some incredible live video of the rover (named Yutu, which means “Jade Rabbit”). However, the video does not seem to have been released to anyone but the Chinese media, and right now the internet has no adequate recording we can find. Two reports show the lander begin from two different angles, though both are low quality. Check out the videos below; fuzzy or not, they really are something.

Yutu rode to the Moon aboard China’s Chang’e 3 mission. The Chang’e series has been the standard-bearer for the Chinese space program for some time, and it will continue to be for at least two more missions. There are two more rovers planned, each with a different mission to research and survey. The ultimate goal is to land a Taikonaut (Chinese astronaut) on the Moon, and beyond that to set up a permanent lunar base. Their timeline for doing this isn’t so far removed from NASA’s musings about a mission to Mars. As the American space agency tries to drum up support for a mission to another planet, its Chinese counterpart could undercut them by focusing on a base much more likely to have economic benefits.

In fact, that’s a large part of China’s motivation to explore the Moon: the economic benefits. When the Apollo astronauts collected moon rocks for study, there was only the vaguest of ideas about the possible resources for exploitation. Now, this rover has an explicit mission to (among other things) survey the Moon for helium-3, a rare element that could be a clean, easily used fuel for nuclear fusion reactors. Only about 15 tons of the stuff is thought to exist on Earth, but estimates for the total compliment of the isotope on Luna range up to five million tons. A leader of the Chinese lunar program estimated that about 100 tons could provide for the world’s current energy needs for one year. Assuming we could extract 100% of that five million tons, that’s quite a bit of time to come up with the next stop-gap energy solution.

The Moon is also known to be home to rich deposits of titanium and other precious metals, and there’s no telling what other, unexpected wonders it might hold. Another lander on schedule for 2017 will attempt to collect and bring back rock and soil samples for analysis, and you can bet traces of precious or useful materials are first on their list of targets. China has said that it plans to spend the next couple of decades scouring our only satellite for helium-3 and anything else worthwhile, possibly securing an energy-independent future for China — that is, assuming fusion comes into its own and that the United States chooses to quietly accept Chinese dominance of the lunar oil fields. This is the stuff of which world wars and science fiction epics are made. Below is a video of the lander’s initial approach, in much higher quality than the footage above.

Yutu is equipped with a ground penetrating radar (GPR) that can probe several hundred meters into the Moon’s crust, and a spectrometer for basic sample analysis. That’s useless, of course, unless we find a more cost-effective way of getting material to and from the Moon. A space elevator would probably work best, but at present that’s almost as harebrained an idea as fusion itself. Perhaps the country’s population problems have made long-term problems more difficult to ignore, but the Chinese space agency appears to see the value of long-term investments and, if you’ll pardon the expression, moonshots.

Purely on its merits today, the Moon is anything but an investor’s dream. Still, an advantage based on the moon would be trivially easy to keep under a monopoly, and to exploit for extreme economic benefit.

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