Mankind’s second race for the moon took on a distinctly Cold War feel yesterday when the Russian space agency accused its old rival Nasa of rejecting a proposal for joint lunar exploration.
The claim comes amid suspicion in Moscow that the United States is seeking to deny Russia access to an isotope in abundance under the moon’s surface that many believe could replace fossil fuels and even end the threat of global warming.
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A new era of international co-operation in space supposedly dawned after the United States, Russia and other powers declared their intention to send humans to the moon for the first time since 1972.
But while Nasa has lobbied for support from Britain and the European Space Agency, Russia claims its offers have been rebuffed.
Yesterday Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia’s Federal Space Agency Roscosmos, said: “We are ready to co-operate but for some reason the United States has announced that it will carry out the programme itself. Strange as it is, the United States is short of experts to implement the programme.”
Nasa announced in December that it was planning to build an international base camp on one of the Moon’s poles, permanently staffing it by 2024. Russia’s space rocket manufacturer Energia revealed an even more ambitious programme last August, saying it would build a permanent Moon base by 2015.
While the Americans have either been coy or dismissive on the subject, Russia openly says the main purpose of its lunar programme is the industrial extraction of helium-3.
Dismissed by critics as a 21st-century equivalent of the medieval alchemist’s fruitless quest to turn lead into gold, some scientists say helium-3 could be the answer to the world’s energy woes.
A non-radioactive isotope of helium, helium-3 is a proven and potent fuel for nuclear fusion – so potent that just six metric tons would supply Britain with enough energy for a year.
As helium-3 is non-polluting and is so effective in such tiny quantities, many countries are taking it very seriously. Germany, India and China, which will launch a lunar probe to research extraction techniques in September, are all studying ways to mine the isotope.
“Whoever conquers the moon first will be the first to benefit,” said Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of China’s lunar programme.
Energia says it will start “industrial scale delivery” of helium-3, transported by cargo space ships via the International Space Station, no later than 2020. Gazprom, the state-owned energy giant directly controlled by the Kremlin, is said to be strongly supportive of the project.
The United States has appeared much more cautious, not least because scientists are yet to discover the secrets of large scale nuclear fusion. Commercial fusion reactors look unlikely to come on line before the second half of this century.
But many officials in Moscow’s space programme believe Washington’s lunar agenda is driven by a desire to monopolise helium-3 mining. They allege that President Bush has moved helium-3 experts into key positions on Nasa’s advisory council.
The plot, says Erik Galimov, an academic with the Russian Academy of Sciences, would “enable the US to establish its control of the energy market 20 years from now and put the rest of the world on its knees as hydrocarbons run out.”