In a close future (in 100-200 years), humanity is in an energy/resource crisis and seeks new resources in the solar system. In my story, humanity, still in need after colonizing the moon, sends a mission to harvest a gas giant in the solar system.

For plot reasons, I need the main resource to be extracted from the gas giant itself. Trying to avoid unobtainium and looking into real resources, the more logical reason I've found (and after visiting this post) was extracting helium-3 for nuclear fusion.

But I face then three problems:

  • Conditions in gas giant are harsh (pressure, storms, gravity, ...) and make extraction difficult, especially on Jupiter.
  • Helium-3 seems to be obtainable as a by-product of hydrogen nuclear fusion. So I guess I have to handwave to make it not enough furnished or to make hydrogen fusion power-plant not technologically available.
  • The distances and delta-v make the energy requirement not very viable to send it back to earth, whatever gas giant I'm aiming for. One idea was to harvest helium-3 and at the same time, looking for other resources nearby (like mining the moons) to make it more credible.

My questions are:

  • Do you have a way to make helium-3 extraction viable? Or to find another interesting resource in a gas giant?
  • Which one of the gas giant of the solar system would be most likely to be exploited?
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg Thank you, but this is the post I mentioned in my question ! $\endgroup$ – Binson Dec 8 '16 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ That was actually my first question on this website, but I will think about it next time I write a question. Thank you for the second link. $\endgroup$ – Binson Dec 8 '16 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ no problem, space question are relatively popular here $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Dec 8 '16 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ 90% match to your story is Asimov's The Martian Way. Only difference is they grabbed water from asteroids in the rings. $\endgroup$ – Mad Physicist Dec 8 '16 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ Also related, but not nearly as much is Saturn Run by John Sandford & Ctein. Sorry, no Wikipedia link. Also Saturn, and also in the rings. They go to meet with aliens, but the aliens are using robots to mine the rings as well. $\endgroup$ – Mad Physicist Dec 8 '16 at 18:29

While Jupiter is the closest (and has an abundance of every resource in its system of moons and energy resources which could be extracted from the magnetosphere), you are specifically looking for 3He, so Jupiter becomes a non starter.

Anyone trying to mine 3He from the atmosphere of Jupiter will be battling massive radiation fields, a very deep gravity well and huge energy costs to get to and from Jupiter proper (as opposed to the Jovian system). Boosting 3He from either a balloon in Jupiter's atmosphere or using some sort of ramscoop diving into the atmosphere will require massive amounts of energy to reach escape velocity, not to mention dealing with the violent and turbulent atmosphere of Jupiter itself.

Saturn is another target, with milder conditions, and additional resources (especially the atmosphere and hydrocarbon oceans of the moon Titan), but navigating through the ring system might be too much of a risk for atmosphere miners looking to extract 3He.

You would need to go farther afield, and mine the atmosphere of Uranus. The radiation environment is very mild, the escape velocity is quite reasonable and even the system of rings is not anywhere near as daunting for mining ships to navigate around (although there is still a finite chance of impacting ring particles on the way in and out of the atmosphere).

The downside of this is you are a vast distance away from the sun and the markets. Any payloads to Earth (or shipments of miners and equipment from Earth) would need to be boosted an additional 11 Km/s to enter a minimum energy trajectory, and would essentially take years to reach their destination. For automated cryogenic tankers of 3He this may not be an issue (so long as the "pipeline" is filled with tankers arriving on a regular basis the market is fulfilled), but not so much for people.

Another issue is the long trajectory times make for interesting market issues. A sudden spike in demand cannot be satisfied by currently arriving tankers or ones in the "pipeline", and a surge in production will result in increased supply reaching the market possibly a decade later (depending on orbital alignments and so on). We can see this in the whiskey market today, a surge in demand is boosting prices, but new "single malt" won't even be marketable for another 5-12 years depending on the distillery's aging standards. Only what is already in the warehouses is going to be available for sale for the foreseeable future. So one of your plot points might be the machinations of "futures" traders attempting to forecast the market and manipulate supply and demand to maximize profits.

So if your story revolves around plausible mid future 3He extraction, I'd tell the characters to "head to Uranus, young man!".

  • 17
    $\begingroup$ You neglected to consider a major socioeconomic downside of mining gas from Uranus: innuendo. $\endgroup$ – Maxander Dec 8 '16 at 16:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "11.k Km/s" - you probably meant 11 km/s, it will take less then 11 years to a tanker from Jupiter to reach inner system. Hm and they need about 5.6 km/s for first Hoffman maneuver from Jupiter or less from any other gas giant. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Dec 8 '16 at 17:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Maxander According to Futurama, scientists renamed Uranus in 2620 to eliminate that innuendo forever. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Dec 8 '16 at 17:50
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Thucydides I don't know that there is too much danger from Saturn's rings. Saturn's D-ring is 6000+ km up from the atmosphere, and very faint. Plus the material of the D-ring (mostly water) would be pretty valuable as it is. If you are going to set up a mining post, you can get a 2 for one deal by scooping up all the nearby ice. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 9 '16 at 2:51
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Saturns rings are also very thin (just 10 meters). Easy to avoid. $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Dec 9 '16 at 14:38

Hydrogen (deuterium) seems obvious. Since it's a light gas, it should be plentiful in the upper atmosphere, thus comparatively easy to obtain.
Deuterium( H-2) is needed as fuel for fusion reactors.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Isn't deuterium easy to extract from water as heavy water ? $\endgroup$ – Binson Dec 8 '16 at 13:32
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ Easy: Not sure how you would define that. Much easier than flying across the solar system to mine it? Heck yes. :) $\endgroup$ – Hennes Dec 8 '16 at 15:09
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ If there's an energy crisis, it probably means all the easily extracted deuterium from water already has been extracted. Apparently humanity got so excited on the "unlimited" source of energy that it reached unprecedented levels of wasting it. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Dec 8 '16 at 15:56
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @RomaH Yeah, but technology has advanced a fair bit since the 1940's... and will advance a fair bit more by the time we consider "mining" from gas giants. 99% pure heavy water is available commercially for around 700 USD a liter these days, 99.6% pure for around 1000 USD. I image that if fusion reactors become a thing, we could expect demand to spike and allow economies of scale to kick in to make it easier to "produce" (which is really the process of sorting and concentrating naturally occurring heavy water). Given that, the idea of space travel to get it seems far-fetched. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Dec 8 '16 at 22:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I guess, to put it perspective, the proportion of naturally occurring heavy water is about 1 in 3200, and the volume of water on Earth is about 93,113 cubic km... so we've got a lot of Deuterium right here, without having to go into space to get any. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Dec 8 '16 at 22:30

Jupiter (the nearest gas giant) for He^3.
Helium III, the lightest isotope, is extremely rare (He^4 is much, much more common) and is theorized as being a superb fuel for nuclear fusion -- if only we could get enough. There have been fairly detailed technical proposals for mining lunar surface material for the He^3 that has collected there from the sun's solar wind; that's how valuable we think it is/will likely be. Operating in cis-Jovian space is not for the faint of human or robotic heart; high radiation and magnetic fields cause all sorts of challenging weirdness.

  • $\begingroup$ Is Helium III different than ³He or He^3? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 9 '16 at 9:12


Interestingly enough, I find this question strongly related to another one Powering the interplanetary trade ships of the 23rd-24th century and to different trade and space-economy questions we had recently on WB.

In my answer to the Q about trade ship, I basically have shown that even pure hydrogen is useful as the chemical reagent for extraction metals and(or) reducing oxides into the water and pure elements. In my opinion, it worth to spend 800 ton of fission fuel to be able separate elements of an 1 km diameter asteroid.

As result, it may help to build different constructions in space which may help way much better to Earth then just having some amount of 3He for energy production. Constructions in space may solve same energy problem as 3He, but they can not only satisfy our energy needs but also regulate climate on the earth and do other planetary stuff.

Hydrogen can be used as reactive mass for reactive propulsion for ships, which is important - space ecology, use an element with high abundance etc.

So, the answer to the question "interesting resource" is - Everything. Everything from a Gas giant is interesting and makes sense to haul in bulk quantities if you have a technology for that.

Composition and uses

not very scientific source for atmosphere compositions as a table.

enter image description here

Jupiter is the closest (except the Sun) source of molecular Hydrogen, which may be used as a reductant for many processes, and as a cheap method to bind oxygen and to store the oxygen in form of water, instead to lose it, release it, or try to keep it at cryogenic temperatures.

All gas giants are good sources of hydrogen because the closest place where one can find hydrogen free floating in form of asteroids is a distance about 900 A.U. (or probably even further, if at all hm, not sure and lazy to calculate, but there a temperature will be about 10K and hydrogen may form ice)

Hydrogen - reductant, reactive mass, cheap media to bind oxygen, cheap media to make water

D, 3He, He, Carbon, N - are just byproducts, each one has its own use, they are very useful byproducts.


The answer how to get is a bit harder than to answer what to get.

Orbital ring like this may help to solve the problem, but they them selfs have technological problems which need to be solved.

There a lot of problems have to be solved before mining resources from Gas Giants will be viable. Winds, Gravity, delta-v - not the first problems here.

The energy source is the first one to solve - because to lifting matter from Jupiter and launching it is energy expensive. Escape velocity for Jupiter is 59.5 km/s and that is 28 times more expensive energy wise than for Earth. Thermonuclear reactor with ease will solve the problem and may be the biggest consumer in the solar system for any 3He you may mine from Jupiter.

An orbital ring or good thermonuclear engine may solve the problem with delta-v. The ring will be more energy efficient, but to be built it need significant demand for resources from Jupiter or any GG.

A bit more advanced tech - build a ring, use thermonuclear reactors and thermonuclear engines, space cables - and no problems, but as for now, we (at the moment) do not have technology which may help us to harvest gas giant resources.

Moons of gas giant are more viable and interesting options - carbon, carbon-hydrogen, N2, NH3. (water in asteroids -> Ceres) And those resources may be used to build rings, reactors etc when time comes.

Basically, we need a ring from the answer, space cable, fission rocket or better, fission reactor or better - and we are ready to send the Everything from a gas giant. All supply fro light elements will be from gas giant for a looong time, 50 years, until we make that active matter (almost entire answer is relevant to extraction, but first part to look for technology is Note about Venus scrap, snake elephant). Carbon nanotubes are the material of the Future, which allow us to solve all problems with extraction matter from gas giants, in this or another way, the only thing we need is to master making longer tubes and making devices from them.

  • $\begingroup$ If you solved the energy problem how to lift stuff in bulk from Jupiter, using that same energy to just separate the elements from a locally available resource would be more energy efficient. Need hydrogen? Capture a comet and split the water. Needs much less energy than lifting that same amout of hydrogen from Jupiter. Need it on earth? We have oceans of hydrogen oxide. 3He on the other hand is not available in bulk from solid bodies. So 3He would most likely be the reason to do it. $\endgroup$ – Durandal Dec 8 '16 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Durandal True. The answer is a bit subjective and rather long. I may or may not to add some elaboration about that, I need to think about that a bit more. Also, OP's premise is that mining is already happening on a gas giant, so it is not a question to do or not to do. Also as He3 seems to be a useful resource for OP, it looks like thermonuclear reactor technology is already established, thus it is less a question of energy, and more what make (or make not) sense to do. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Dec 8 '16 at 23:52
  • $\begingroup$ I think your answer overall is as well founded as it can be when guessing about the future, only the reasoning which resource would be the motivator to actually engage in mining a gas giant swaps the best candidate into the byproduct category. I mean if you mine Jupiter, sure you take all you can use, but I see it unlikely one would go mainly because of hydrogen or hydrocarbons - these could be obtained elsewhere with less effort (e.g. your Titan example, no need to mine the gas planet itself for it). $\endgroup$ – Durandal Dec 9 '16 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Durandal The difference is that the mass of comets and asteroids is dramatically limited compared to that of jupiter. Further they are sparsely distributed. We would of course capture those resources first but it would not be enough for us to build a dyson swarm. In the same way we go after the easy oil on earth first we would go after the easy mass in space. Then we would start mining the gas giants. $\endgroup$ – Seth Paulson Jul 11 '17 at 16:27

Helium Shortage

The recent concern about our helium supply, although not a significant worry for us now, points out humanity's extreme interest in having enough helium. So, helium could be an element that becomes overused and hence requires extraterrestrial mining.

To justify this, perhaps in the future, some new form of helium-hungry technology, or a significant increase in existing helium-using technology, causes Earth's supplies to be insufficient.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The helium shortage is widely report to be a myth. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 8 '16 at 15:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yep, I agree, it currently is. My only thought was that the article shows helium is currently needed by many very useful technologies. So, I was thinking that in the same way that oil was once thought to be inexhaustible due to the usage rate at the time, perhaps over time, technological expansion & innovation could lead to a helium shortage. $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Dec 8 '16 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion Something like cold fusion powered element production (kind of like desktop 3D atom printing) could cause a huge increase in demand for helium. $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Dec 8 '16 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ @ThomBlairIII If you can use cold fusion to power transmutation, you can presumably use that process to make as much helium as you want from hydrogen atoms. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Dec 8 '16 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeScott You might not believe this, but I got hydrogen and helium mixed up. This, I feel, exemplifies why I majored in English and barely passed most hard science classes--I can read and try to make sense out of stuff, but the hard facts get kinda jumbled pretty easily in my head. Thanks for pointing out! $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Dec 8 '16 at 15:55

As long as you don't find Tibanna Gas, the most gas you will find on our solar gas giants will be hydrogen, with 85-95% of the atmospheres. The other gasses are somewhere between 5% and who-cares (check Wikipedia for details).

It depends on your economy if it is suitable to mine gas there or if some another solid planet is more resourceful.

Of course, if it ultimately has to be a gas giant, you need some handwave to add some gas of your choice.


To obtain Hydrogen-2 (deuterium) and Helium-3 for a Project Daedalus-style fusion rocket, Neptune would be the friendliest gas giant. It has a relatively shallow gravity well, relatively little orbital debris and a large ice moon with plenty of water (Triton) and it rotates slowly enough to not have lethal Van Allen belts. It is a long, long way out, but it would be far easier to handle relatively friendly cis-Neptune space than the lethal radiation pervading cis-Jupiter space.


Current fission reasearch seems to be based on deuterium and tritium, due to the lower Coulomb barrier (energy barrier for bringing positively charged nuclei together.) That's not to say 3He won't be useful in the distant future. However, mining it from Jupiter seems enormously difficult, because you can't build a solid base there.

Absolutely enormous quantities of gas would have to be processed in order to get any significant amount of 3He, and processing enormous quantities of gas requires equipment that is either enormous or at high pressure. Such a processing unit would be better placed on a solid body, and not so far into Jupiter's gravity well.

Jovian Shipyard

I do think the Jovian system is the right place to consider, as the other giant planets are just too far from earth. I would look at its moons, which are extraordinarily diverse, and actually enable you to appreciate the beauty (and sheer vastness) of Jupiter in the sky (something that cannot be appreciated from Jupiter itself.)

I think the Jovian moon system may be the perfect place to build very large ships in orbit (whether generation ships or Death Stars.) Each moon can contribute different raw materials.

To consider just the four Galilean moons


Covered in sulphur and sulphur dioxide. Sulphur can be used in making sulphur concrete (aggregate bound together with sulphur that has melted and then been cooled) and is flammable.


Water ice surface, probable subsurface ocean, rich in salts, with an atmosphere (albeit very thin) of oxygen. This results from water being photolysed and the hydrogen escaping into space, due to the higher thermal velocity of hydrogen compared to oxygen.


Ice over a rock core


Equal quantities of ice and rock, not well differentiated (the rock has not sunk to the bottom)

The first three moons are locked in an orbital resonance with each other, which produces enormous tidal forces, which are responsible for heating up the moons, and producing volcanoes and other phenomena. There is therefore a rich source of geothermal energy on these moons, without the need for solar cells which would be very ineffective this far from the sun, (or nuclear technology, which is probably a requirement for extensive space travel, but should perhaps be conserved for when it is most needed.)

Delta v's for transfer between Jupiter's various moons are very reasonable, see the bottom right corner of http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/images/mission/deadfrog42.png


Alien stuff

As opposed to raw materials which might actually be present in real life (e.g. big diamonds) you could have there be alien materials on this moon. You can hand wave up what serves your plot best.

This could be ancient alien tech which we cannot replicate. The miners are scavenging an ancient alien junkyard. There could be large and small pieces, with intrinsic worth and utility - for example a tiny cold fusion motor, or a broken Z-point generator. A nearly working quantum disruptor would be a jackpot big enough for a miner to retire to balmy Vladivostok.

Or it could be alien life forms. For example, some crystalline self replicating life form, the spores of which can set a template used to restore radiation damaged cells. Or some life form capable of forming a symbiosis with Earth crop plants such that they can survive the harsh weather on Venus.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.