TZUR YIGAL, Israel (Israel Space Agency PR) — Meet the startup that wants to make oxygen from Moon: Helios, supported by the Israel Space Agency and the Ministry of Science and Technology, plans to launch the first experiment to the International Space Station next year. Helios is developing technology that will allow oxygen to be produced directly from lunar soil. If it succeeds, the small startup from Israel will pave the way for human settlement on the moon and Mars.
“It should be understood that building infrastructure on the moon is not a futuristic vision for another 20 years,” explains Helios CEO Jonathan Geifman. “In the next five years, more than 50 lunar missions will be launched, many of them as part of the Artemis project. And in three years, the first two modules of the lunar space station, the lunar gateway, that SpaceX will launch, will be around. NASA has set itself the goal of returning to the moon in order to stay, that is, to generate a permanent presence on the moon.”
When the cost of transporting one kilogram of oxygen from Earth to the moon is over $100,000, building a serious infrastructure on the moon would simply be too expensive with the current method.
As a rule, to launch a cargo into space needs fuel. But the weight of the fuel adds to the weight of the cargo, which requires more fuel. The extra fuel means extra weight, which requires more fuel — and so on in a vicious circle called by engineers the “tyranny of the missile equation”. This means that space missions consist of 95% fuel and only 5% cargo (astronauts, satellites, scientific experiments, etc.). Oxygen is a major player in the problem, since in order to burn all this fuel the launcher must also carry with it the oxygen, which is known to be absent in space, and this oxygen also has weight. Lots of weight.
“A good example is the starship that SpaceX is developing,” Geifman explains. “The spacecraft is expected to weigh 1,200 tons – with 850 tons of the total weight being oxygen. Simply oxygen. And if we then want to send the Starship to Mars, we will have to refuel it while in a low satellite orbit around Earth – meaning we will have to launch a supply spacecraft ahead of time. It itself will be another starship with more oxygen.”
The revolutionary technology that Helios is developing is the extraction of the oxygen required from lunar sand without the need for perishable raw materials from Earth, thus saving costs and enabling the transport of a larger charge at the expense of oxygen. Oxygen production on the moon will support not only a constant human presence on the moon, as in the Artemis and Lunar Gateway programs, but also in space missions – such as manned missions to Mars. Since the Earth’s gravity is much stronger than that of the Moon, it takes 25 times more energy to transport oxygen from Earth to nearby space than it does from the Moon. In fact, it will be cheaper to refuel starships with oxygen from the moon than with oxygen from Earth, even if the spacecraft orbits Earth.
Avi Blasberger, director of the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Science and Technology, says that “we anticipate that the return trend to the moon around NASA’s Artemis program will create significant business opportunities in the space industry in general and the Israeli space industry in particular. Helios, which began in the space agency’s entrepreneurship workshop as part of Israeli Space Week, is an excellent example of a groundbreaking Israeli start-up that will lead and be a key factor in this evolving trend in the world.”
The Moon’s Soil is Oxygen
“Fortunately,” says Geifman, “oxygen is not a rare commodity in the solar system . Every rocky body in the solar system is rich in oxygen – Earth, Mars and even our moon. Oxygen is found in the sand, or in the orbit, of the moon. Like on Earth, sand. Is only a night of elements like iron, silicon and aluminum chemically related to oxygen, which makes up about half the weight of sand. Thanks to the soil samples brought to Earth in the Apollo missions, we have a good idea about the chemical composition of lunar soil — and found that between 42% and 45% of the moon’s soil is oxygen, depending on the landing site. The challenge is to chemically separate this oxygen from the iron, silicon and other elements.”
The process of separating oxygen from the sand that the company uses is electrolysis, which means breaking down oxides with the help of an electric current. First, heat the regular to 1,600 degrees Celsius – and melt it. In the second stage, an electric current is passed through the lava, thus releasing the oxygen that will bubble from the melt. Of course, even the by-products produced in this way can be used for human settlement on the moon, such as iron, silicon and aluminum.
“The chemical formulas are very simple,” Geifman explains. “This is an experiment done in a ninth grade science class, separating water into oxygen and hydrogen. The problem is working at high temperatures, and with molten moon sand acting like acid. Our challenge is to produce the electrochemical cell that will survive this process. NASA has started talking about producing oxygen from sand The moon was back in the ’80s, and MIT was able to produce dance oxygen 20 years ago, but it was not on a significant scale – and the project was abandoned. At the heart of our development is innovative electrodes, which we have already patented.”
Because the worn electrodes cannot be replaced as they do in factories on Earth, the electrodes we develop will be able to withstand temperatures of 1,600 degrees for years to come.
First Experiments on Moon in Coming Years
Helios is backed by several serious names in the space industry, such as William Larson, former director of NASA’s in situ resource exploitation project (ISRU), Professor Bartil Anderson, former chief scientist of the European Science Foundation, and Yoav Landsman, deputy director of the Israeli spacecraft mission at Genesis. The feasibility of the technology here in Tzur Yigal, Helios intends to conduct a first experiment at the International Space Station as early as next year, in order to test the micro-gravity effects on the electrochemical process of oxygen separation, and in the coming years – several first experiments on the moon itself.
“To create an interstellar future for humanity,” Geifman concludes, “we will have to learn how to live from Earth, literally, and it starts with oxygen. One of the professors we work with likes to say at conferences that in the coming years this is what humanity will do mainly in space research.”
If so, we should start with the moon, which will be our springboard to more distant worlds.