Israeli startup Helios said Monday it plans to join the second and third missions to the moon of Japan’s lunar exploration firm ispace, to prove that the technology it has developed is able to produce oxygen and metals on the lunar surface.
Helios says it has developed technology that can produce oxygen needed for fuel from the lunar soil. This will make multiple and long-term missions to the Moon economically viable, as it will allow Moon colonies to “live off the land” instead of having to carry all of their fuel and other resources from Earth.
The initiative has been awarded funding from the Israeli Space Agency and the Israeli Energy Ministry to develop a system to be launched in two space missions over the next three years, the company said April.
One of the main obstacles in sending missions to the Moon is the cost of transporting items from Earth to the lunar surface. Launching rockets with cargo requires fuel; the heavier the cargo, the more fuel needed. That extra fuel adds to the weight, and this requires even more fuel. Oxygen is a vital component for fuel combustion.
Setting up a lunar base or having recurring lunar visits, as planned for the next decade by private space firms such as SpaceX, might require thousands of tons of oxygen a year used as rocket propellant.
It costs several hundred thousands of dollars per kilogram to ship anything to the Moon – making long-term missions economically unviable unless oxygen can be produced on the Moon, Helios said.
The process the firm has developed is called molten regolith electrolysis, using a soil-fed reactor. It melts the lunar soil at 1600 degrees Celsius and then, through electrolysis, creates oxygen that is stored for use.
The firm has simulated most of the conditions on the Moon to try out its system, using Moon-like sand developed by the University of Central Florida, based on samples brought back from the Moon. The mission will now allow it to test out its technology on the Moon, with a lack of gravity, to see how it performs.
“In order not to have to endlessly transport equipment to the lunar station and causing life outside of Earth to operate under restrictive constraints, we need to look at things through the prism of infrastructure that can produce materials from natural resources,” said Jonathan Geifman, Helios’s co-founder and CEO, in the statement on Monday. “The technology we are developing is part of the value chain that enables the establishment of permanent bases away from Earth.”
The Japanese ambassador to Israel, Mizushima Koichi, hosted a signing ceremony between the Israeli and Japanese companies for the two memorandum of understandings (MoU), in which ispace will deliver Helios’ technology to the lunar surface onboard ispace’s lander by the end of 2023 and mid-2024.
Helios’ payloads, called Lunar Extractor – 1 and Lunar Extractor – 2, aim to demonstrate the production of oxygen and metals from the local resources.
The lunar soil has over 40% oxygen by weight, locked in oxides and minerals. The Lunar Extractor is designed to separate the oxygen from the soil using electrolysis. As a byproduct, the reactor will produce metal that can be cast into a mold — in what could be the first artifact to be produced on the Moon in human history, Helios said in a statement.
“Utilizing the resources on the Moon is the natural conclusion and would lead to large economic impact for a cislunar ecosystem and eventually the sustainability of the Earth,” said Takeshi Hakamada, founder & CEO of ispace, in the statement.
ispace is a lunar exploration company with over 150 staff and offices in Japan, Europe and the United States. The company is building a small commercial lunar lander, which aims to provide a high-frequency, low-cost delivery service to the Moon, as well as a lunar rover for surface exploration.
The firm hopes to “be a gateway” for the private sector to bring their business to the Moon. The company’s first lunar mission is planned for 2022, with a second mission planned for 2023.
On its first mission, ispace’s lander will deliver payloads for the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and three companies.
The lander for the first mission is currently undergoing final assembly at an ArianeGroup facility in Germany and will launch from the United States on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the statement said.