Way back when these weekly science blogs started (or maybe it was before that?) I discussed the issue of the helium shortage we’re experiencing here on earth. Within the last year, thanks to this shortage, the price of the isotope helium-3 has risen from $150 per liter to $5,000 per liter. Nearly all of the helium on the planet exists within a single storage area within 250 miles of Amarillo, Texas. And that’s probably the least safe place for any rare commodity (‘cause Texans, man, Texas…). Helium experts (assuming such people exist) are afraid that we’ll run out of helium completely within 20 years if we remain at our current consumption rate.
Oh crap! What do we do?
Answer: mine the hell out of the moon.
After bombarding the moon in 2009, NASA scientists found—among other things—that the lunar soil is very rich in helium thanks to solar winds showering it for however long the moon’s been around (I think it’s like 4.4 billion years old or something, but don’t quote me on that). Not only does our natural satellite have helium, but it also apparently contains a bunch of rare earth elements (common-moon elements?), including europium and tantalum, both of which have applications in solar panels, hybrid cars, and other green energy applications. Right now China is the biggest exporter of such elements, but is currently reducing such exports, indicating the possibility of a shortage.
So yeah. It’ll be interesting if we ever decide to actually utilize the moon as an orbiting mine and if doing so would ever be a cost-effective procedure. The funniest part is the fact that NASA utilizes—guess what? helium—to pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks.