A startup will try to mine helium-3 on the moon

Two of Blue Origin’s earliest employees, former president Rob Meyerson and chief architect Gary Lai, have started a company that extracts helium-3 from the moon’s surface, brings it back to Earth and sells it for applications here.

The company has been operating in secret since its founding in 2022, but came out on Wednesday to announce that it has raised $15 million, adding to a previous round of angel investment.

This is a notable announcement because, although the funding is small, its implications are potentially large. Recently, there has been much talk of a “lunar economy” in space flight but little clarity on what this means. Most companies that have announced commercial plans to launch rockets to the Moon, land on the Moon, or conduct other activities there are doing so with the intention of selling services or lunar water to NASA or other parties carrying out government contracts. In other words, there is no money created and ultimately, NASA is the customer.

The current moonshot rush is like the California gold rush without the gold.

By harvesting helium-3, which is rare and limited in supply on Earth, Interlune could help change that calculation by extracting value from resources on the Moon. But many questions remain about the approach. First, the company must design a means to extract gas from lunar regolith, the abrasive, rocky, and dirt-like material on the moon’s surface. Then it will have to return helium-3 to Earth. Currently there is no means to do this. Finally, it must prove that there will be a large and continuing market for stable isotopes on Earth to support its business.

However, with NASA investing billions of dollars into the Artemis program to return humans to the Moon, Mayerson is convinced that now is the time to spend that money on transportation, power, and other resources to start a lunar mining company. Is. This would never have been possible before now. This may hardly be possible today.

“Helium-3 is the only resource that costs enough to go to the Moon and bring it back to Earth,” Meyerson said in an interview. “There are customers who want to buy it today.”

a useful helium isotope

Helium-3 is a stable isotope of helium that contains two protons and one neutron. It is formed by fusion in the Sun and transported by the solar wind. However, Earth’s magnetosphere deflects this stream of particles away from the planet.

This material is not found naturally on Earth, and is present only in very limited quantities from nuclear weapons tests, nuclear reactors, and radioactive decay. One liter costs a few thousand dollars, and efforts are being made by the US Department of Energy to recycle it. Because there is no magnetosphere around the Moon, it is thought that large amounts of helium-3 gas is trapped in pockets of lunar regolith.

Meyerson said helium-3 will be in great demand in the near future in the superconducting quantum computing industry and medical imaging. In the long term, there is a possibility of operating a fusion reactor with helium-3 as fuel. This is something that has long been advocated by Harrison “Jack” Schmidt, a geologist who flew on Apollo 17 to the Moon. However, there are serious questions in the scientific community about the feasibility of this approach.

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