Israeli pens plan to build a belt of solar panels on the moon to power oxygen production

NASA’s unmanned Artemis mission to the moon last month represented a small step toward the ultimate dream of taking people to Mars and beyond, a goal that will require a giant leap in finding ways to level and exploit the resources of Earth’s only satellite.

Within two years, Project Artemis — which has been joined by more than a dozen countries, including Israel — will fly astronauts around the moon, and if all goes according to plan, 2025 will see the first manned landing on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.

By the middle of the next decade, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to fill the first permanent base camp for rotating research teams.

To make this possible, the main challenge will be to mine and separate the minerals and oxygen bound together in the rocky deposits called regolith that cover the surface of the moon, and generate the energy to power this process.

NASA and the US Department of Energy are developing space nuclear technologies, according to the administration’s website. He notes that “fission systems are reliable and can enable continuous power regardless of location, available sunlight, and other natural environmental conditions. Demonstration of such systems on the Moon will pave the way for long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars.”

As an alternative, a US-born Israeli academic designed a conceptual plan to outfit the moon with solar panels.

Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Gordon of the Department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics at Ben-Gurion University has calculated that this requires six times less mass than the best nuclear option to provide the same amount of electricity.

He claims his proposal would provide an uninterrupted supply of electricity to oxygen production facilities 100% of the time, with enough panels always exposed to the sun.

Gordon published his insights in the academic journal Renewable Energy earlier this year and was subsequently invited to give a talk at NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

“We discussed it and it was stimulating,” Gordon said, explaining that solar researchers on Glenn’s campus were competing with other scientists seeking a nuclear solution.

“NASA wants a system that is reliable, has a long life, and has minimal mass,” he said. “Reliability comes before cost.”

In the initial phase of human colonization, only small amounts of energy will be required, and NASA has already selected six companies to come up with proposals, three based on solar energy and three using nuclear fission.

With the long term in mind, NASA will need larger amounts of energy to extract the water — which is on the moon in various states — and mine the lunar surface for minerals to use in building the moon, and separate those minerals from the oxygen, which makes up about 45% of the rock deposits.

Gordon’s research began when he was approached two years ago by an Israeli startup, Helios Project, which is designing an oxygen-producing reactor on the surface of the Moon with technology that requires very high temperatures.

The joint approach of funding from the Israel Innovation Authority did not bear fruit, and the partnership stalled—but not before Gordon laid out his conceptual plan for a belt of solar panels on the moon.

Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Gordon in his laboratory in the Department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics at Ben-Gurion University. (politeness)

The oxygen extracted from the lunar regolith will serve human needs but is mainly used to power and fuel orbiting rockets and satellites.

Today, rockets must be loaded with enough liquid oxygen and hydrogen to provide propulsion to get to space and return to Earth.

With about $1 million currently required per kilogram of payload, costs could be reduced if oxygen could be supplied at lunar filling stations.

NASA’s New Moon rocket lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, November 16, 2022. This launch is the first flight test for the Artemis program. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Before starting, Gordon considered three options, one of which was nuclear, although as an expert on solar energy he was looking to develop a solar alternative. The standard was producing power around the clock.

It turns out that the two solar options—generating solar power while the sun is shining and storing it in batteries during periods of darkness, or building twice as many solar power stations as needed and running each station only half the time—are very expensive.

“I developed a concept and made all the quantitative estimates that the engineering staff at the space agency might want to review,” Gordon explained.

His plan would see a ring of solar panels installed near one of the moon’s poles; Use the North Pole for illustration. Their location would be no higher (or lower, in the case of the South Pole) than the 88th parallel, to balance the advantage of a relatively short lunar circumference in these regions with the need to ensure that the shortest periods of day still satisfied the demands of the force.

The oxygen plants are located about 10 kilometers (six miles) near the pole. This would maintain enough distance to prevent lunar dust generated during mining from covering the photovoltaic panels, but still keep the transmission lines relatively short.

Gordon noted that the transmission lines themselves would not require any insulation, since the lunar Earth provides natural electrical insulation.

Gordon added that experiments that test the strength of photovoltaic panels in the face of cosmic radiation look promising. “PV must be able to survive cosmic radiation long enough to meet what is needed,” he said.

But the biggest concern – and the main concern of NASA – was how to adequately protect humans when operating oxygen plants and carrying out other tasks. “There is no answer to that yet,” he said.

Gordon said he had “no opinion” about the potential risks of building nuclear reactors on the moon, and noted that nuclear fuel could easily last for 100,000 years, though turbines and generators would degrade within decades.

He admitted that dealing with nuclear waste was a “good question,” adding, “There will be nuclear contamination.”

He continued, “At this time, my impression is that NASA is planning nuclear reactors on the Moon for the long term, and that the solar people are trying to convince them otherwise or at least own both technologies.”

His own plan was still “on the far horizon”.

NASA has not provided any response as of press time.

A prototype lunar oxygen production unit operating under vacuum conditions at the Helios Project Laboratory. (Courtesy of the Helios Project)

The Helios project, which last year signed a memorandum of understanding for cooperation with the Japanese company Ispace, hopes to fly a small prototype of its oxygen plant to the moon in 2025.

The plan is to produce a few dozen grams of oxygen to show a proof of concept, according to Jonathan Gifman, co-founder and CEO of Helios. To do this, it is likely that a battery will be used.

Jonathan Gifman, co-founder and CEO of Helios (Courtesy)

The ultimate goal, Jeffman said, is to produce 1,000 tons of oxygen per month — enough to refuel the SpaceX Starship. Powered by liquid oxygen and liquid methane, the Starship will be “the main backbone of all activities in the near future.”

Israel launched its own lunar lander, Beresheet, in 2019. Due to a technical fault, the ship crashed upon landing.

Earlier this year, former Israeli fighter pilot Eitan Stebi became the second Israeli in space, paying privately owned Axiom Space to join three others on a flight to the International Space Station.

Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was killed in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia crashed during re-entry into the atmosphere, killing all seven crew members on board.


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