China Long March 5 rocket launch could usher in helium-3 fuel age

4 Nov 2016387 Shares

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Rocket engine. Image: PhotoRoman/Shutterstock

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China is asserting its intentions of becoming not just the greatest superpower on Earth, but in space too, as it launches its powerful Long March 5 rocket into orbit.

While the US and the USSR were the early dominating powers of space, the current state of play has seen a number of other organisations – both governmental and private – assert their own presence in an increasingly crowded orbit.

One of the fastest developing is the economic global powerhouse of China. The country has invested billions in spacefaring technology, the latest of which is the giant Long March 5 rocket.

Rivals world’s largest payload space freighter

According to Spaceflightnow.com, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has launched its newest rocket into orbit, ushering in a new age for Chinese space exploration.

What makes the Long March 5 so important for China is that aside from doubling the payload capacity of any previous Chinese booster, it now rivals the payload of the current world’s largest space freighter, the Delta IV Heavy rocket, manufactured by United Launch Alliance.

Constructed and perfected over a period of nine years, the rocket and its 10 engines lifted off from the launch pad at the Wenchang space centre in southern China, where it then entered into Earth’s orbit.

Also on board the rocket was the mysterious Shijian 17 spacecraft, which Chinese authorities have given very little information on.

However, it has revealed that it contains an electric thruster package test, which could one day be used on board satellites to get them into different orbits with greater efficiency.

Now that the Long March 5 rocket has achieved a successful inaugural flight, China can set its ambitions to be the dominant player in decades to come, with regard to mining helium-3 on the moon.

The gas has long been heralded as the fuel of the future, as it would play an integral part in a potential nuclear fusion reactor that could produce cheap, near-limitless and relatively clean energy.

One small step for China, one giant leap for helium-3

While it remains one of the rarest isotopes naturally available on Earth, there are thought to be significant supplies on the moon, having served as a sponge for helium-3 emitted from the sun for billions of years.

However, aside from powering experimental nuclear energy technology on Earth, helium-3 could also be used to power spacecraft of the future on long missions into deep space.

This first launch of the Long March 5 rocket will now also be used to send a robot to the surface of the moon next year. The purpose of this is to retrieve samples of its surface, to analyse – among other things – the quantities of helium-3.

Following that, the rocket will also power China’s ambition to send its first Mars rover sometime in 2020.

In the meantime, the CNSA will continue to gradually build its own space station in Earth’s orbit having launched its second space lab, the Tiangong-2, last September.

Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com