Last week saw the release of the science fiction/thriller, Moon, starring Sam Rockwell as an astronaut named Sam Bell, who is wrapping up a three-year stint at a mining base on the moon operated by the fictional Lunar Industries. His only companion is a robot named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), whose facial “expressions” consist of emoticons displayed on a screen. Three weeks before he is scheduled to return home to his wife and three-year-old daughter, Sam discovers that everything at his cozy lunar base is not what it appears to be. Or is the isolation finally messing with his sanity?
Director Duncan Jones has said the film’s almost monochrome cinematography was inspired by images of the moon taken by the Japanese lunar orbiter Selene. But the story line owes a bit to real-world science, too. The premise is that Lunar Industries has set up its base to mine helium-3, a rare non-radioactive isotope of helium that has become Earth’s primary energy source.
As it happens, helium-3 really is an ideal fuel for nuclear fusion — the problem is that there isn’t enough of it back home here on Earth, and what little there is here cannot be extracted cost-effectively. Most of the helium-3 we use is manufactured rather than mined. Sure, it’s present in small quantities in the Earth’s mantle, in natural gas, and even our atmosphere, but much of it is not directly accessible.
Hence the interest in potentially mining helium-3 on the moon. This isn’t just science fiction: the head of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has openly said that one of the main goals would be to mine helium-3. And while “Lunar Industries” might be fictional, a Russian space company called RKK Energiya said back in 2006 that lunar helium-3 could be a viable commodity as early as 2020, if there were sufficient funding to develop such mining programs.
Moon looks to be a hit on the independent film circuit. And if companies like RKK Energiya have their way, it could turn out to be prescient as well.