China plans to build a mine on the Moon in order to harvest a rare helium isotope, Helium-3, that scientists believe may be the key source of energy in the future. And their plans of landing an unmanned spacecraft to the surface of the moon and then come back to Earth along with mined lunar dirt are now one step closer to their fruition.

“Once the plan to the moon works out and everything we do are all in place, well, definitely the moon is ours.”  Professor Chui Shin of Chinese aerospace agency said.

With an estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of water ice at its poles and an abundance of rare-earth elements such as gold, copper, titanium, platinum and diamond hidden below its surface, the moon is rich ground for mining.

On Sunday, Jan. 11, state media revealed that the Chinese spacecraft service module, which was earlier used in a test flight around the moon to send a prototype of a sample return capsule and come back to Earth, entered orbit around the Earth’s natural satellite to collect additional data that will be used to plan for the Chang’e 5 mission in 2017.

Helium-3 makes it extremely valuable. The isotope typically sells for $1,000 per gram or $1 billion per metric ton. By comparison, the value of platinum is somewhere around $39.7 million per metric ton.  It’s estimated the moon contains as much as one to five million tons of it. Our planet’s magnetic field deflects Helium-3, but there are no such magnetic poles on the moon, allowing massive amounts of the isotope to be deposited on the lunar surface.

Helium 3 is rare on Earth because the atmosphere and magnetic field which surround the planet prevent any Helium 3 from landing on the surface, however, this is not the case with the Earth’s Moon, as vast quantities have been dumped on the Moon’s surface by solar winds.

One of the main reasons helium-3 is sought as a fusion fuel is because there are no neutrons generated as a reaction product. The protons that do get generated have charge, and can therefore be safely contained using electromagnetic fields. Early dreamers imagined that Saturn or Jupiter would be the ideal places to try and get their hands on some helium-3, but it now appears that the Chinese have set their sights on the Moon.

However, there are some considerable obstacles that need to be figured out. First and foremost, does China even have the authority to mine on the moon? In addition, extracting all this Helium requires a gigantic extraction process-hundreds of millions of tons of lunar soil would need to be taken in just to produce one ton of Helium-3. Regardless, China has a planned mission to land on the moon, collect soil samples, and return to Earth by 2017.

Details on China’s moon mission

China’s moon mission first arrived in orbit a couple of months ago. The orbiter flew back to Earth in November, and the service module was moved into a position in into sync with Earth’s orbit.

The service lab, carrying support systems for a spaceship, will collect further data to help in planning of the Chang’e 5 moon mission planned for 2017.

If all goes well, Chang’e 5 will make a soft landing on the moon and collect around four pounds of rock and soil samples.

If China’s moon mission is successful, China will become only the third country after the United States and Russia to have successfully completed a lunar mission.