Israeli space tech startup Helios announced a partnership this month with Florida’s Eta Space to create and store oxygen on the Moon in a bid to make space missions more cost-effective and offer a better solution for refueling while in orbit.
Helios was set up in 2018 in an innovation workshop held by the Israeli Space Agency during Israel’s Space Week that year. The company developed an electrochemical reactor that can extract oxygen from lunar regolith (a mixture of soil, powdery dust and broken rock on the surface of the moon), which it says 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.
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.
As part of the new agreement, Helios will leverage Eta Space’s expertise in cryogenic technologies, specifically liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, to produce and store oxygen. Together, they plan to develop a lunar oxygen production and liquefaction plant.
“Eta Space would play the important role of liquifying and storing the oxygen produced by the Helios reactor in cryogenic tanks,” explained Dr. William Notardonato, founder and CEO of Eta Space, based on the Space Coast of Florida near the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
“The two companies complement each other with their mission to reduce costs in space even further, a key step to make beyond earth presence sustainable,” said Notardonato, who worked for NASA for 30 years.
Helios CEO and co-founder Jonathan Geifman said that “to enable the establishment of a permanent lunar base, Helios’s technology is not enough – a whole set of technologies are required to realize the lunar economic value chain. This new collaboration with Eta Space will for the first time connect two purely commercial links in the chain – the production and the storage of oxygen – thus making multiple and long-term missions to the Moon closer to being economically viable.”
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 thousand dollars per kilogram to ship anything to the moon – making long-term missions economically unviable unless oxygen can be produced on the m\Moon, Helios said.
Helios’ process, called molten regolith electrolysis and tested in lunar-like conditions, can melt the lunar soil at 1,600 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.
Helios signed a deal last year with European multinational tech corporation OHB SE to deliver its technology to produce oxygen and metals on the Moon aboard the lunar landing system LSAS (Lunar Surface Access Service). Helios’s tech will fly on the first three LSAS missions to the lunar surface starting in 2025, allowing the company to test out its technology in real conditions.
Helio says its tech can also be used to extract 99% pure iron from iron ore, requiring 50% less energy than what is currently used in the industry. This can lead to better methods for steel production, a high-emission industry, and the creation of “green steel.”
The Tzur Yigal-based company in central Israel said it will launch commercial agreements to build pilot plants that can eventually produce multiple tons of iron per day, and integrate its technology into the production chain.
Helios has been awarded funding from the Israel Space Agency and the Energy Ministry. Last month, the company secured $6 million in a seed funding round led by At One Ventures, the “net positive to nature” investment firm, and Israel-based Doral Energy-Tech Ventures. Deep tech investment firm Metaplanet also participated in the round.
Shoshanna Solomon contributed to this report.