Russia is planning to race America back to the Moon – and to start mining it for a precious fuel that is rare on Earth.
They aim to put men back on the lunar surface within nine years, beating America’s 2018 target by three years.
No Russian cosmonaut has ever walked on the Moon. The last Americans went there on Apollo in 1972.
But they are not going just to sight-see. Russia aims to set up a permanent base and dig for a valuable energy resource called helium 3.
There are few deposits of the fuel on Earth but it is abundant on the Moon with estimates of between 1million and 500million tons.
Nikolai Sevastyanov, head of Russia’s giant Energia Space Corporation, said he wants the mines to be operating by 2020.
He said in Moscow: “We are planning to build a permanent base on the Moon by 2015 and by 2020 we can begin the industrial-scale delivery of helium 3.”
Lunar bulldozers will heat the Moon’s surface to get at the fuel. Space freighters will then ship it back to Earth to power thermo-nuclear power stations.
The Russian government approved plans to build their own rival to the space shuttle.
The £1billion Kliper – the name means Clipper – will replace the ageing Soyuz fleet. It will carry six astronauts but no cargo, unlike the shuttle.
Helium 3 is deposited on the Moon’s powdery soil by a wind of charged particles from the sun.
Just 25 tons of the isotope – one shuttle load – could provide enough power for a year for a country the size of the USA.
It is considered by many as the perfect fuel as it is extremely potent but non-polluting and gives off virtually no radio-activity.
Gerald Kulcinski, of the University of Wisconsin, said: “Helium 3 fusion energy may be the key to future space exploration and settlement.
“It could be the cash crop for the Moon.”
© Paul Sutherland. Unauthorised reproduction forbidden.