The idea of extracting both structural metals and oxygen from Lunar regolith, on location, emerged in an MIT study published in 2015 titled Molten Regolith Electrolysis reactor modeling and optimization of in-situ resource utilization systems. The ESA has also been exploring this concept, as Tommaso Ghidini told 3dpbm last year, in collaboration with metal powder manufacturer Metalysis. Now an Israeli startup, HELIOS, has been awarded a contract from the Israeli Space Agency to commercially develop such a reactor, using oxygen for breathable air and fuel, and metals such as aluminum and titanium for making structural parts using technologies such as metal additive manufacturing.
“ESA and NASA are heading back to the Moon with crewed missions, this time with a view towards staying,” explained Tommaso Ghidini, Head of ESA’s Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division. “Accordingly we’re shifting our engineering approach to systematic use of lunar resources in-situ. We are working with our colleagues in the Human and Robotics Exploration Directorate, European industry and academia to provide top class scientific approaches and key enabling technologies like this one, towards a sustained human presence on the Moon and maybe one day Mars.”
The cost of launching the required materials to set the first lunar base is unfeasible, only utilizing resources on-site can enable this endeavor. This is why HELIOS is developing a reactor that can process Lunar soil (and Martian) soil to oxygen and metals. In HELIOS’s vision, the MRE Reactor will first separate the abundant oxides found all over Lunar (and Martian) surfaces into oxygen and various metals such as iron, aluminum, titanium and more.
At this point, various fabrication methods, including in particular various additive manufacturing processes, will be tested and developed to utilize the Reactor’s metal production. Storage technologies will then be developed to enable the utilization of oxygen at a later stage.
The ultimate fulfillment of the project’s goals is establishing the required infrastructure and utilities for future human colonization of the Moon (and Mars). This will be carried out using autonomous construction robots (i.e. construction 3D printers).
The oxygen will be transported to Earth orbit for the purpose of refueling space-vehicles traveling further away to outer space. Oxygen constitutes about 65-80% of the mass of rocket propellants, thus, refueling at Earth orbit will drastically decrease the cost of future space missions.
While oxygen is needed for human life, most of it is used for the spacecraft’s launch and travel, as it is a vital component for fuel combustion. For example, the launch of four astronauts back from the moon will require approximately 10 tons of oxygen, and the fueling of Starship, SpaceX’s reusable launch vehicle, is expected to require 850 tons of oxygen for every refueling. Almost 45% of Lunar and Martian soil is made of oxygen, enabling local production to meet increasing oxygen demands.
Humanity is expected to transport large amounts of oxygen from Earth in the next five years – over 50 missions to the moon are expected during this period. Most of these missions are related to NASA’s Artemis program, which is collaborating with SpaceX to put man back on the moon for the first time since our last visit in 1972. This time to stay.
In the next three years, the first modules of the Lunar Gateway, the space station orbiting the moon, will be launched and they will serve as the cornerstone of the future space station. The forthcoming base is expected to weigh thousands of tons and the material in highest demand is oxygen – the key for rocket and spacecraft fuel. Almost 70% of the weight of the vehicles we see launched today is oxygen, which means projects need to develop and adopt technologies that will enable the mining and utilization of raw materials in their natural environment, in situ. This is exactly what the Israeli Helios project is developing.
According to Jonathan Geifman, Helios’s founder and CEO, “The technology we are developing is part of the value chain that enables the establishment of permanent bases away from earth. In order not to have to endlessly transport equipment to the space station in the moon’s atmosphere, 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 raw materials from natural resources.”
Avi Blasberger, Director General of the Israeli Space Agency, added: “Helios’ revolutionary technology, which is supported by the Israeli Space Agency, can produce oxygen from the lunar soil without consumable raw materials from Earth. This will lower launch costs, expand payloads and will enable long-term human presence in deep space. We expect a trend of returning to the Moon following NASA’s Artemis program, which will create significant business opportunities in the space industry in general and in the Israeli space industry specifically. Helios, which was established in an innovation workshop held by the Israeli Space Agency during Israel’s Space Week, 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.”