Lunar Helium-3 Return to the Earth

Helium-3 is available in the regolith of the moon and is a possible fuel for advanced nuclear fusion reactors on Earth. It would be extracted from the lunar regolith, packaged and returned to Earth. One question is how to return the helium-3 to the Earth. One approach is to use aerodynamic braking to return the helium-3 to a low Earth orbit where it would be picked up by the Space Rapid Transit (SRT) reusable launch vehicle and delivered to an airport where it would be shipped to power plants. SRT It is a two stage to orbit vehicle with a hypersonic air-breathing engine in the first stage.

The overall architecture is shown below.

One of the major advantages of SRT is that it can land and takeoff at any major airport. The first stage can be used as a transport vehicle. Since it is fully reusable and operates like an aircraft it is potentially much less expensive than vertical launch.

The return from the Earth involves launching the helium-3 tanker into orbit and then doing a departure burn that puts the spacecraft in an elliptical Earth orbit with a low perigee. As the return vehicle passes through perigee, aerodynamic drag lowers apogee until apogee and perigee are the same. This is shown in the following plots.

The first plot show the altitude from the Earth, the velocity magnitude and the drag force magnitude. The second plot shows the orbit. The last plot shows how apogee is reduced with each pass through perigee. It takes 10 weeks to enter the final orbit if the orbit perigee is 100 km. Note that perigee doesn’t change. The simulation uses a free-molecular aerodynamic flow model. For simplicity, it does not include lunar gravity perturbations.

Ideally, the lunar return vehicle would be brought back to Earth and reused.

The maneuver uses only drag. A lifting vehicle would have an additional degree of freedom since the force vector could be controlled.

This analysis was done with the Spacecraft Control Toolbox. The function will be available in Version 2020.2 available in early fall. Contact us for more information!

This entry was posted in General by Michael Paluszek. Bookmark the permalink.

About Michael Paluszek

Michael Paluszek is President of Princeton Satellite Systems. He graduated from MIT with a degree in electrical engineering in 1976 and followed that with an Engineer's degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT in 1979. He worked at MIT for a year as a research engineer then worked at Draper Laboratory for 6 years on GN&C for human space missions. He worked at GE Astro Space from 1986 to 1992 on a variety of satellite projects including GPS IIR, Inmarsat 3 and Mars Observer. In 1992 he founded Princeton Satellite Systems.

2 thoughts on “Lunar Helium-3 Return to the Earth

  1. Helion is the best fuel for clean nuclear fusion reactors, because of it’s low activation energy. Has anybody considered Helium3 as a fuel for nuclear fusion propulsion at low percentages of the speed of light?

    • Dear Wm David:

      Thanks for the comment. Our Direct Fusion Drive uses the Deuterium Helium 3 reaction to produce fusion power. The fusion power is absorbed by additional deuterium or hydrogen that flows around the field reversed region where fusion happens and produces thrust. This gives an exhaust velocity of from 100 to 200 km/s. This is a good number for solar system and interstellar missions out to a few thousand AU. Search on Direct Fusion Drive for more information.

      Mike

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.