Prospecting For Helium-3 On The Moon

December 01, 1998

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Future prospectors on the Moon may be assisted by resource maps developed from research by scientists in Arizona and Hawaii. The resources they will be seeking are not gold or diamonds, but helium-3 [3He], an isotope that is rare on Earth, but more common on the Moon. Helium-3 is expected to be the cleanest fuel of choice for potential 21st century fusion reactors, because its reaction is efficient and produces low residual radioactivity.

Drs. Jeffrey R. Johnson of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona; Timothy S. Swindle of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson; and Paul G. Lucey of the University of Hawaii's Institute of Geophysics and Planetology in Honolulu have developed a helium-3 map of the Moon based on a combination of factors they have analyzed. Their research will be published in a forthcoming issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union, as "Estimated Solar Wind-Implanted Helium-3 Distribution On The Moon."

The factors taken into account by the researchers in mapping the likely abundance of helium-3 in a given area are the exposure age of the Moon's surface matter, or regolith; the relative amount of charged particles, including helium-3, arriving from the Sun (the solar wind); and the titanium content of the lunar soil. The mineral ilmenite [FeTiO3], composed of iron, titanium, and oxygen, retains helium much better than other major lunar materials. The older soils should be better sources of helium-3, they report, because they have been exposed to the solar wind longer and contain greater amounts of fine-grained aggregates that absorb helium-3. Also, solar wind-implanted particles are more abundant on the far side, because the Earth shields the Moon's near side from the solar wind for a portion of each solar orbit.

The scientists estimate that the greatest amounts of helium-3 will be found on the far side maria, or "seas," of the Moon, due to the higher solar wind, and in nearside areas with high concentrations of titanium dioxide [TiO2]. Their hypothesis is based on analysis of rock samples brought back by Apollo astronauts and mineralogic maps produced by the Clementine spacecraft. They expect to refine their maps with new elemental composition maps produced by the Lunar Prospector spacecraft.

"3He" is written with the numeral "3" as a superscript. The numerals in "FeTiO3" and "TiO2" are subscripts.

A color figure accompanies this paper. It may be accessed on the worldwide web at: Click on Document (cover3.tif). The caption is: "Simple cylindrical projections (left side of images corresponds to 180 West longitude; 30 degree grid shown) of (a) solar wind fluence model; (b) Clementine 750 mm mosaic; (c ) TiO2 abundance map from Lucey et. al. (1996) displayed from 0-7 weight percent; and (d) 3He abundance map displayed from 1-10 ppb (see text for details)."

The GRL paper upon which this release is based will be faxed to journalists on request to Harvey Leifert (see contact information). It has not yet been scheduled for a specific issue of Geophysical Research Letters, but there is no embargo.

For further information on the science in this paper, journalists may contact Dr. Jeffrey R. Johnson at USGS Flagstaff: Phone (520) 556-7157; fax (520) 556-7014; email

American Geophysical Union

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