Helium In Space


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Most helium in the universe is helium-4, the vast majority of which was formed during the Big Bang. Large amounts of new helium are being created by nuclear fusion of hydrogen in stars. Helium is named for the Greek god of the Sun, Helios. Although helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, most of it in the Earth's atmosphere bleeds off into space. Helium used for industrial purposes is a byproduct of natural gas. Hydrogen-Helium Abundance Hydrogen and helium account for nearly all the nuclear matter in today's universe. This is consistent with the standard or 'big bang' model.The process of forming the hydrogen and helium and other trace constituents is often called 'big bang nucleosynthesis'.

  • Helium-3 occurs as a primordial nuclide, escaping from Earth's crust into its atmosphere and into outer space over millions of years. Helium-3 is also thought to be a natural nucleogenic and cosmogenic nuclide, one produced when lithium is bombarded by natural neutrons, which can be released by spontaneous fission and by nuclear reactions with.
  • Even intergalactic space is filled with matter, albeit tenuous; by its standards, Earth’s extended atmosphere is a thick soup. Bottom line: if you release a helium balloon on the ground, it.

Helium's unique properties make it the perfect gas for many important applications

Article by: Hobart M. King, PhD, RPG

Helium blimp: Most people have heard of helium being used as a lifting gas for weather balloons, blimps, and party balloons. These are very minor uses of helium. The use that consumes more helium than any other is cooling the magnets in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines in medical facilities. Goodyear blimp photo by Derek Jensen.

Helium in space shuttle

What is Helium?

Helium Balloon In Space

Helium is a chemical element and a colorless, odorless, tasteless, inert gas. Bohr atomo. It has the smallest atomic radius of any element and the second-lowest atomic weight. It is lighter than air.

Most people know that helium is used as a lifting gas in blimps and party balloons, but they can't name another way in which it is used. The number one use of helium is as a cooling gas for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines used in medical facilities. Other important uses of helium include: a protective gas for welding, an inert gas for controlled atmosphere manufacturing, a fugitive gas used for leak detection, and a low-viscosity gas for pressurized breathing mixtures.

Where Does Helium Come From?

Very little helium is present in Earth's atmosphere. It is such a light element that Earth's gravity cannot hold it. When present at Earth's surface, unconfined helium immediately begins rising until it escapes the planet. That's why party balloons rise!

The helium that is produced commercially is obtained from the ground. Some natural gas fields have enough helium mingled with the gas that it can be extracted at an economical cost. A few fields in the United States contain over 7% helium by volume. Companies that drill for natural gas in these areas produce the natural gas, process it and remove the helium as a byproduct.

Helium-bearing natural gas deposits: Deposit model for helium-bearing natural gas fields in the United States. Helium is produced by the decay of uranium and thorium in granitoid basement rocks. The liberated helium is buoyant and moves toward the surface in porosity associated with basement faults. The helium then moves upward through porous sedimentary cover until it is trapped with natural gas under beds of anhydrite or salt. These are the only laterally-persistent rock types that are able to trap and contain the tiny, buoyant helium atoms. This geological situation only occurs at a few locations in the world and is why rich helium accumulations are rare.

Related:A New Use of Helium - Hard Drives

Why is Helium in Some Natural Gas?

Most of the helium that is removed from natural gas is thought to form from radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in granitoid rocks of Earth's continental crust. As a very light gas, it is buoyant and seeks to move upward as soon as it forms.

The richest helium accumulations are found where three conditions exist: 1) granitoid basement rocks are rich in uranium and thorium; 2) the basement rocks are fractured and faulted to provide escape paths for the helium; and, 3) porous sedimentary rocks above the basement faults are capped an impermeable seal of halite or anhydrite. [1] When all three of these conditions are met, helium might accumulate in the porous sedimentary rock layer.

Helium has the smallest atomic radius of any element, about 0.2 nanometers. So, when it forms and starts moving upward, it can fit through very small pore spaces within the rocks. Halite and anhydrite are the only sedimentary rocks that can block the upward migration of helium atoms. Shales that have their pore spaces plugged with abundant organic materials (kerogen) sometimes serve as a less effective barrier.

Helium-bearing natural gas deposits: Map showing the natural gas fields that serve as important sources of helium in the United States. The natural gas produced from these fields contains between 0.3% to over 7% helium. The helium is removed from the gas for commercial sale. Image by Geology.com using location data from the United States Geological Survey. [2]

Where is Natural Gas Rich in Helium?

Most unprocessed natural gas contains at least trace amounts of helium. Very few natural gas fields contain enough to justify a helium recovery process. A natural gas source must contain at least 0.3% helium to be considered as a potential helium source.

World Helium Resources
Billion Cubic Meters
United States20.6
The values above are estimated helium resources from USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries. [3]

In 2010, all of the natural gas processed for helium in the United States came from fields in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming as shown on the accompanying map. The Hugoton Field in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas; the Panoma Field in Kansas; the Keyes Field in Oklahoma; the Panhandle West and Cliffside Fields in Texas, and the Riley Ridge Field in Wyoming account for most of the helium production in the United States. [2]

During 2010, the United States produced 128 million cubic meters of helium. Of that amount, 53 million cubic meters of helium were extracted from natural gas, and 75 million cubic meters were withdrawn from the National Helium Reserve. Other countries with known production amounts were: Algeria (18 mcm), Qatar (13 mcm), Russia (6 mcm), and Poland (3 mcm). Canada and China produced small but unreported amounts of helium. [3]

Helium in MRI machines: The number one use of helium is cooling the magnets in the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines used to diagnose disease and injury in medical facilities.

A New Use for Helium: The first helium-sealed hard drive was produced in 2013. Helium enables the drive to use less energy, produce less heat, make less noise, take up less space, hold more data and produce fewer vibrations than a standard hard drive. Learn more. Photo copyright iStockphoto / deepblue4you.

Uses of Helium

Helium has a number of properties that make it exceptionally well-suited for certain uses. In some of these uses, helium is the best possible gas to use, and in a few there is no adequate substitute for helium. Several uses of helium along with the properties that make it suitable for the use are described below.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging

The number one use of helium is in the magnetic resonance imaging machines used in medical facilities to assess injuries and diagnose illness. These machines utilize a magnetic field that is produced by a superconducting magnet. These magnets generate an enormous amount of heat. Liquid helium is the cooling substance of choice for regulating the temperature of these magnets. Because helium has the second-lowest specific heat of any gas and the lowest boiling/melting point of any element, there is no foreseen substitute for helium in this very important use.

Lifting Gas

Helium has the second-lowest atomic weight of any element. Only hydrogen has a lower atomic weight. As a lighter-than-air gas, helium has been used as a 'lifting gas' for airships and balloons. Blimps, dirigibles, zeppelins, anti-aircraft balloons, weather balloons and other lighter-than-air craft have all used helium as a lifting gas. It is much safer than hydrogen because it is not flammable. This was the most important category of helium use until the end of World War II. Much lower amounts of helium are now used as a lifting gas.

Purging gas: Helium is used by NASA and the Department of Defense to purge liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen from fuel tanks and fuel delivery systems of rocket engines. Helium is inert and has a freezing temperature that is so low that it remains a gas through the purging process. A flow of helium into these systems has even been used during emergencies to extinguish fires. Image by NASA.

Purging Gas

Helium has the lowest melting and boiling point of any gas. It melts and boils at temperatures close to absolute zero. Because it remains a gas at very low temperatures, it can be used as a purging gas for fuel tanks and fuel delivery systems that are filled with very cold liquids such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Because it is inert and has a low freezing temperature, it can displace these fuels safely without freezing. Large amounts of helium are used by NASA and the Department of Defense for purging rocket propulsion systems.

Controlled Atmosphere Manufacturing

Helium is an inert gas. The only gas with a lower reactivity is neon. This low reactivity makes helium a valuable gas to use in manufacturing and repair processes when an inert atmosphere is required. Helium also has the second-lowest density of any gas along with a very high thermal conductivity. These properties of helium gas make it the atmosphere of choice for many metallurgical processes, growing perfect crystals in chemical vapors, manufacturing optical fibers and other uses.

Leak Detection

Helium has a very low viscosity, a high diffusion coefficient, and the smallest atom of any element. These characteristics make helium very hard to contain. If a system has a leak, helium will escape. Helium gas is therefore used to test high vacuum systems, fuel systems and other containments for leaks.

Helium breathing mixtures: Helium is used to prepare breathing gas mixtures for deep-water diving. Helium is inert and has a low viscosity under pressure which allows easier breathing. Image by NOAA.

Breathing Mixtures

Helium and other inert gases are used to prepare breathing mixtures for deep-water diving and medical treatments. Helium is used here because it is inert, has a very low viscosity and is easier to breathe under pressure than any other gas.

Welding Gas

Helium In Space

Helium is used as a protective atmosphere when welding. An inert gas atmosphere protects hot metals from oxidation and other reactions that might occur rapidly at high temperatures.

Uses of helium: Relative amounts of helium consumed by various uses in the United States during 2011. Graph by Geology.com using data from USGS.

Helium: A Nonrenewable Resource

Helium is a gas that is only found where a coincidence of unlikely situations occur. Although it is continually being produced by radioactive mineral decay in Earth's crust, its rate of natural production and accumulation is so slow that it must be considered a nonrenewable resource.

Helium Information
[1] Helium in New Mexico: Ronald F. Broadhead, New Mexico Geology, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, November 2005.
[2] Helium 2010: Joseph B. Peterson and Peter J. Madrid, Minerals Yearbook, United States Geological Survey, January 2012.
[3] Helium 2012: Peter J. Madrid, Mineral Commodity Summaries, United States Geological Survey, January 2012.
[4] Selling the Nation's Helium Reserve: Committee on Understanding the Impact of Selling the Helium Reserve, National Research Council, The National Academies Press, 2010.
[5] Testimony on the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013: Testimony before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, United States Government Accountability Office, GAO-15-734T, July 8, 2015.
[6] Fast-Rising Helium Prices May Pop Balloon Sales: Rachel Rodgers and Sharon Barricklow, an article in the Decatur Herald-Review, February 2015.

Helium Gluts and Helium Shortages

In 1925 the United States established the National Helium Reserve to serve as a strategic supply of helium for use in airships and for other defense purposes. At that time the country was producing much more helium than was being consumed. After World War II the amount of helium used as a lifting gas declined, but demand for helium as a purging gas when refueling rocket engines and as a coolant in nuclear weapons facilities surged. Still, more helium was being produced than consumed.

In 1995, Congress decided that the National Helium Reserve was not essential and initiated a program to sell the helium as part of the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. [4] For almost two decades Congress allowed the helium to be sold at an enormous discount to free-market prices. Up to 1/2 of the world's helium demand was being met through sales from the National Helium Reserve. In some years more helium was exported out of the United States to other countries than was consumed domestically. [2] Those who purchased helium from the government got a fantastic deal, and those who purchased helium in the free market paid a much higher price.

Dumping of National Helium Reserve stock into the market depressed the price of helium so much that it was being used as a cheap substitute for argon and other gases that have a much less limited supply.

Because commercial helium production was not rewarded or heavily utilized, the market was undersupplied when National Helium Reserve sales were replaced by an auction system in 2014. In the first auction, two bidders purchased the entire yearly allocation of 93 million cubic feet of helium at more than double the previous year's market price. After the auction another 1 billion cubic feet was sold to the same two bidders. [5]

Since the first auction, the price of helium continued to rise because production of new helium falls short of consumption. The price increase has triggered investment in new helium processing plants. However, helium can only be produced from natural gas fields with salt or anhydrate as a trap rock. These only occur in a few parts of the world.

Under current law, the National Helium Reserve will be sold-out by 2021. Hopefully the rising investment in helium recovery plants will be adequate to meet the needs of helium consumers when that important source of helium is gone.

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Porous Plugs as Phase Separators

Another set of porous plugs controlled the escape of helium vapor from the SHOOT dewars. Although the dewars were well insulated, some heat leaked in. This heat (plus the heat from the thermomechanical pumps) slowly evaporates the liquid helium. The helium vapor must be allowed to escape -- if it's held in the dewar, the pressure will build up.

How can we let the vapor escape while making sure the liquid stays in the dewar? On the ground that's easy: the liquid sits in the bottom of the tank, so we put the vent on the top of the tank. In zero gravity, however, there is no top or bottom. We still have to put vents in the tank, but in the vents we install porous plugs. These porous plugs are slightly different from the plugs used in the thermomechanical pumps. The vent plugs have pores that are large enough that both the normal and superfluid components of helium can flow through. When the liquid helium reaches the outside surface of the plug, that is, the surface exposed to the vacuum of space, it evaporates. As it evaporates it cools. To the 'cool' helium on the outside surface of the plug, the 'warm' helium inside the dewar now looks like a hot spot. Since superfluid helium flows from cool towards warm, the superfluid at the outer surface of the plug flows back into the dewar. As superfluid leaves the outer surface of the plug, normal heium at the outer surface converts to superfluid helium to keep the mixture appropriate to the temperature. Thus, there is a combination fluid flowing from the inside to the outside of the plug, fluid evaporating and escaping, and fluid flowing back into the dewar. If the porous plug is designed correctly, the cooling caused by evaporation at the plug will hold the dewar at the desired temperature.


This use of the porous plug, to allow helium to evaporate and leave the dewar, is called phase separation. The liquid and vapor forms of helium are called 'phases', so a plug which can separate the liquid phase (which stays in the dewar) from the vapor phase (which boils away) is called a 'phase separator'.

Porous plugs were used as phase separators on the COBE and IRAS satellites, as well as on SHOOT. On these satellites, liquid helium was used to cool sensors which measured infrared radiation. Infrared radiation is sometimes called 'heat radiation'. Warm objects (including people) give off measurable amounts of infrared radiation. The infrared receivers on COBE and IRAS needed to be cold enough that infrared radiation from the receivers themselves would not overpower the weak infrared signals coming in from faraway astronomical objects.

A small amount of liuqid helium leaks from the porous plug. The amount is so small that in most cases it can be ignored. However, the XRS Instrument has such a small helium supply that even this leak must be fixed. XRS engineers devised a system which evaporates the thin film of leaking liquid helium, using the evaporation to help cool the main helium tank. For an introduction to this heat exchanger, see the film killer section of our XRS Intro section. For technical details, see the film killer page.

The helium which leaks through the porous plug is cooled by the plug, and is thus colder than the helium in the tank.

The Castles Catastrophe, or, All Gone in an Instant

There is a process, called the Castles Catastrophe, by which all the liquid helium in a satellite may drain off into space. For the catastrophe to occur, there would have to be liquid helium on the outside end of the porous plug, that is on the end away from the tank. This outside liquid helium would also have to be warmer than the helium in the tank. (In normal operation, liquid helium outside the porous plug would be cooled by the plug, and thus would be colder than the helium in the tank.) If both these conditions were met, then superfluid helium would flow from the tank, through the plug, to join the outside helium, just as happens in the fountain effect. (Remember that superfluid helium flows from a colder to a warmer area.) The process might continue till all the helium had been lost in space.

No satellite has yet suffered a Castles Catastrophe, in part because everyone's trying to avoid it. The process is named after its discoverer, Dr. Stephen Castles, who was then at NASA Goddard's Cryogenics & Fluids Branch.

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Curator: Mark O. Kimball
NASA Official: Eric A. Silk
Last Updated: 09/11/2014