Helios, an Israeli startup developing technology to produce oxygen from lunar soil, signed an agreement with the Japanese company ispace last month to join its second and third missions to the lunar surface. Helios aims to demonstrate that its technology is able to produce oxygen and metals on site.
This technological demonstration “is slated to be a major step in humanity’s critical path to develop the ability to ‘live off the land’ beyond Earth, the company said in a statement. In other words, the technology that produces oxygen and other materials from lunar soil for fuel will allow for a longer presence on the moon and more economical space missions because fuel and other resources will not need to be brought over from the Earth.
“We really appreciate ispace’s technology and their vision resonates with us deeply,” says Helios Co-Founder and CEO Jonathan Geifman tells NoCamels. “Ispace’s goal to establish big-scale villages on the lunar surface very much aligns with ours. We believe that we will have significant infrastructure on the moon that would require technology like ours to sustain it, and maybe to establish martian colonies further along the way.”
“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. Ispace, as a pioneer in building the cislunar ecosystem, is honored to provide our lunar transportation service and assist Helios to demonstrate their technology on the Moon,” said Takeshi Hakamada, ispace founder and CEO, from a video call at an official signing ceremony with the two companies in Israel.
Helios also hopes to gather more information to measure the effects of lunar gravity on the evolution of oxygen in the system and be able to iterate this process to further optimize the technology.
The companies jointly signed two Memorandum of Understandings (MoU) at the ceremony, which said that ispace will deliver technology from Helios to the lunar surface on board two ispace landers, Lunar Extractor –1 and Lunar Extractor –2, by the end of 2023 and mid-2024,
The ceremony was hosted by Mizushima Koichi, the Japanese Ambassador to Israel. It took place at the Japanese Embassy to Israel, and also included the presence of the director general of the Israeli Space Agency, Avi Blasberger, ispace’s Founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada, Helios’ founder and CEO Jonathan Geifman, and the Helios team.
“We are very excited by their technology, and we believe this effort will stimulate more players to enter the market,” said Hakamada.
Helios is backed by the Israeli Space Agency, Israeli Ministry of Energy, Israeli Innovation Authority and angel investors. Prominent 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.
The initiative was awarded funding from the Israeli Space Agency and the Energy Ministry in April to develop a system that will be launched in two space missions over the next three years, the company said in a previous statement.
Oxygen from lunar soil
Current developments in the space industry, including the NASA Artemis Program and efforts to establish permanent infrastructure on the moon and Mars, highlights that the most sought-after consumable in this field would be oxygen, according to Geifman.
“Sixty to 70 percent of the weight of most rockets and spacecrafts, when fully loaded with cargo and astronauts, is oxygen,” Geifman explains. “Current transportation of items from the Earth to space costs over $1 million per kilogram, and if we want to establish permanent infrastructure on the moon and have recurring visits, we must be able to utilize resources in-situ.” he adds.
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Lunar soil, or regolith, is composed of over 40 percent oxygen by mass. Helios has innovated a sustainable solution to the resource challenge: developing a technology that extracts the oxygen from the regolith without the use of any Earth-brought consumables.
More specifically, Helios conducts the oxygen-extraction process through a technology known as molten regolith electrolysis.
Geifman explains that the science behind this technology is similar to that of electrolyzing water to separate water from hydrogen. By electrolyzing the molten lunar soil, oxygen is separated from other materials that are chemically connected to it. Helios’ team will use two electrodes, one responsible for extracting the oxygen, and the other for retaining the metal byproducts, including iron and silicon.
The entire process will be conducted autonomously on the moon because it does not rely on any Earth-brought resources, and the system will analyze relevant data to streamline it back to the Helios team back on Earth.
“This feature gives us a unique advantage,” Geifman says, because “it allows a one-step process that is also universal, meaning that it could be performed anywhere without restraints of the geographic location.”
Technology for the Moon and Earth
This is the first of two projects currently being developed by the Israeli-based startup. The second project focuses on generating steel for Earth, in production that does not emit carbon emissions.
“The steel industry is responsible for over seven percent of worldwide carbon emissions,” Geifman notes. “Enabling a solution that decarbonizes the industry is also a critical element of our work at Helios. We will experiment to mold the metal byproducts from the process of molten regolith electrolysis and to practically produce the first-ever artifact that would be made on the moon,” he adds.
Geifman proposes that the lunar industry will eventually become a whole value chain that integrates a variety of technologies across fields of communication, transportation, energy, and excavation that would be dependent on one another.
Helios’ ultimate vision is to enable sustainable human life on Earth and beyond, according to Geifman. To achieve this goal, Helios hopes to have their technologies deployed in space, and also here on Earth.
It has become clearer to Geifman that we will eventually find solutions to the Earth’s climate challenge by deploying technologies derived from those in the space-resource industry.
“There is a lack of incentives to make a real change to the existing business models that would make the industries here on Earth less pollutive,” Geifman points out. “But under restrictive circumstances in space, where any operations would be costly and resource-intensive, we are forced to think out of the box—to innovate and develop technologies that are the most efficient and sustainable, and we could bring those innovations to Earth for utilization,” he says.