Israel’s Helios to deliver space tech to the moon aboard European lunar lander

Startup signs agreement with Germany-based OHB to prove its oxygen-from-moon-sand tech works in no-gravity conditions

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Startups and Business editor and reporter.

An illustration of the Lunar Extractor technology developed by Helios, which the startup hopes will be able to make oxygen on the moon (Courtesy)
An illustration of the Lunar Extractor technology developed by Helios, which the startup hopes will be able to make oxygen on the moon (Courtesy)

Israeli startup Helios announced on Monday that it signed a new agreement with European multinational tech corporation OHB SE to deliver Helios technology to produce oxygen and metals on the moon aboard the lunar landing system LSAS (Lunar Surface Access Service).

The landing system relies on the design of the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet, co-developed by the SpaceIL organization and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), which embarked on a failed landing mission in 2019 and is set for a second attempt in three years. IAI and OHB joined forces two years ago to develop the LSAS for global commercial customers.

Based in Germany, OHB manages and coordinates the LSAS project — from the selection of the payloads, to their integration on the moon lander, to the mission launch — as well as individual missions to the moon.

As part of the new agreement, Helios’ tech will fly on the first three LSAS missions to the lunar surface starting in 2025.

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 says it developed technology that can produce oxygen needed for fuel from the lunar soil, which 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.

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.

Dr. Timo Stuffler, Head of Business Development at OHB, left, and Helios CEO Jonathan Geifman sign a memorandum of understanding in October 2021 to deliver Helios’ space tech to the lunar surface aboard a lunar landing service operated by OHB. (Courtesy)

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 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 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. The mission will now allow it to test out its technology on the moon, with a lack of gravity, to see how it performs.

Based in Tzur Yigal in central Israel, Helios has been awarded funding from the Israeli Space Agency and the Energy Ministry.

“Production of oxygen on the lunar surface is key to enable the expansion of humanity beyond Earth and to dramatically reduce the cost of space exploration. Oxygen is going to be the most sought-after consumable in space as it makes up over 60% of the mass of any fully-loaded space vehicle designated for lunar missions and beyond,” said Helios co-founder and CEO Jonathan Geifman in a statement on Monday.

“Helios’ lunar mission with OHB serves to mature its oxygen production technology under real lunar environment, and is a significant step to realize the upcoming cislunar industry,” he added.

“Returning and establishing a permanent base on the moon requires international cooperation and the creation of partnerships between space agencies and privately-held companies,” says Brigadier-General (Res.) Uri Oron, the director-general of the Israel Space Agency. The cooperation between Helios and OHB “demonstrates the strong, long-lasting relationship between Germany and Israel, and the contribution this partnership can yield to the space industry.”

Photo taken by the Beresheet spacecraft in which an Israeli flag can be seen on a plaque with the inscription, “Am Israel Hai,” or “The Jewish People Lives,” and in English, “Small country, big dreams,” taken 37,600 kilometers from Earth. (Courtesy SpaceIL/IAI)

OHB hopes to provide European and international customers from the scientific and business communities “timely access to the moon,” said Dr. Lutz Bertling, member of the OHB SE Management Board. “In the development of the lunar economic market, we intend to fill a gap with LSAS as the first European lunar shuttle service, since according to current plans, an institutional European moon lander will be available in 2029 at the earliest.”

Dr. Timo Stuffler, head of business development at OHB, said Helios was “taking an important step towards being able to test hardware for in-situ resource utilization on the moon at an early stage.”

In July, Helios announced plans to join the second and third missions to the moon of Japan’s lunar exploration firm ispace, in a separate deal to send its tech to the lunar surface. According to the agreement, ispace will deliver the technology  onboard ispace’s lander by the end of 2023 and mid-2024.

The Japanese firm 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. Its first lunar mission is planned for 2022.

Shoshanna Solomon contributed to this report.

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