China has discovered a crystal from the Moon made of a previously unknown mineral, while also confirming that the lunar surface contains a key ingredient for nuclear fusion, a potential form of effectively limitless power that harnesses the same forces that fuel the Sun and other stars.
The crystal is part of a batch of lunar samples collected by China’s Chang’e-5 mission, which landed on the Moon in 2020, loaded up with about four pounds of rocks, and delivered them to Earth days later. After carefully sifting through the samples—which are the first Moon rocks returned to Earth since 1976—scientists at the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology spotted a single crystal particle, with a diameter smaller than the width of a human hair.
The crystal is made of the novel mineral Changesite—(Y), named after the Chinese Moon goddess, Chang’e, that also inspired China’s series of lunar missions. It was confirmed as a new mineral on Friday by the Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification (CNMNC) of the International Mineralogical Association (IMA), according to the Chinese state-run publication Global Times.
Changesite—(Y) is the sixth new mineral to be identified in Moon samples, and the first to be discovered by China. Before China, only the U.S. and Russia could claim to have discovered a new Moon mineral. It is a transparent crystal that formed in a region of the northern lunar near-face that was volcanically active about 1.2 billion years ago.
According to state media, the new lunar samples also contain helium-3, a version of the element helium that has long fascinated scientists—and science fiction creators—because of its potential as a nuclear fusion fuel source. This hypothetical form of power aims to harness energy released by atoms that merge under tremendous pressures, such as those in the interiors of stars. Starlight is a ubiquitous product of nuclear fusion, but human-made fusion reactors will still likely take decades to develop, assuming they are feasible at all.
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That said, if these reactors do become a reality, helium-3 would be a good fuel candidate because it produces less radioactive byproducts and nuclear waste compared to other atoms. Whereas helium-3 is incredibly scarce on Earth, it is abundant on the Moon, a disparity that has stoked dreams of mining the material on the lunar surface.
Along those lines, China has joined the United States, and other nations, in expressing interest in extracting resources from the Moon in the future.