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Making oxygen from moon sand, startup eyes long-term life in space

Tech developed by Helios melts lunar soil to extract oxygen for fuel, enabling lower payloads and lower costs for space missions

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Simulated lunar sand melted at 1600 degrees celsius by Helium to develop oxygen (Courtesy)
Simulated lunar sand melted at 1600 degrees celsius by Helium to develop oxygen (Courtesy)

An Israeli startup, 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 Energy Ministry to develop a system that will be launched in two space missions over the next three years, the company said in a statement.

“We have planned missions to demonstrate our system in space with partners,” said Jonathan Geifman, co-founder and CEO of Helios, in a phone interview. He said he could not yet reveal the names of the partners the company will be working with, but said the first mission is expected toward the end of next year and the second one in three years.

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, the company says in a YouTube video on its website. 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. The SpaceX craft Starship, when fully loaded, is expected to weigh 1,200 tons, of which 850 tons will be oxygen. 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, the company 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, explained Geifman, using moon-like sand developed by the University of Central Florida, based on samples brought back from the moon.

The big unknown, he said, is how the technology works in lack of gravity, and that is why the two pilot missions are being planned to test the method in situ.

Creating oxygen from the lunar surface will be key to enable the growth of space missions, the company said. The launch of four astronauts back from the moon will require approximately 10 tons of oxygen, and the Starship, SpaceX’s reusable launch vehicle, is expected to require 850 tons of oxygen for every refueling.

Over 50 missions to the moon are expected over the next five years, with a new era of lunar exploration stemming from NASA’s Artemis program. Artemis will land astronauts on the lunar surface within four years and there are plans to build a long-term presence on the Moon by the end of the decade.

Almost 45% of lunar and Martian soil is made of oxygen, and this enables local production to meet increasing oxygen demands.

Helios is not alone in its quest, and there are other global initiatives working to reach the same goal of creating oxygen from lunar or Martian soil: British engineers are working on a process to extract oxygen from lunar dust as part of a European Space Agency project to create a permanent and sustainable lunar presence. A prototype oxygen plant has been set up in the Netherlands. And NASA’s Perseverance rover has managed to produce pure oxygen on Mars.

Jonathan Geifman, Helios’ co-founder and CEO (Courtesy)

Geifman said he believes that the technology developed by Helios is the best, and it enables oxygen production at a greater scale. “We need to be able to do this on a big scale, and our development allows this.”

Helios was set up in an innovation workshop held by the Israeli Space Agency during Israel’s Space Week in 2018.

“Helios’ revolutionary technology, which is supported by the Israeli Space Agency, can produce oxygen from the lunar soil without consumable raw materials from earth,” said Avi Blasberger, director general of the Israeli Space Agency. “This will lower launch costs, expand payloads and will enable long-term human presence in deep space.”

NASA’s Artemis program “will create significant business opportunities in the space industry in general, and in the Israeli space industry specifically,” he said. The firm “is an excellent example of a groundbreaking Israeli startup that will lead and serve as a key player in the development of this trend around the world.”

Helios employs six people at its offices in Tzur Yigal, Israel, and works with researchers at the University of Central Florida. Geifman said the startup is planning to set up a team of employees, also in Florida, this year.

Members of the company’s advisory board include William Larson, NASA’s former In-Situ Resource Utilization project manager; Prof. Bertil Andersson, the former chief executive of the European Science Foundation; and Yoav Landsman, senior system engineer and deputy director of the Israeli Beresheet lunar-lander mission.

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