Israeli Pens Plan Belt of Solar Panels on Moon to Fuel Oxygen Production

Israeli Pens Plan Belt of Solar Panels on Moon to Fuel Oxygen Production

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

In two years, the Artemis project, to which more than a dozen countries have joined, including Israel — will fly astronauts around the Moon and, if all goes according to plan, in 2025 will be the first manned lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.

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

To make this possible, a key challenge will be to mine and separate the metals and oxygen bound to the stony deposits called regolith that cover the lunar surface and generate the energy to drive this process.

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

As an alternative, an American-born Israeli academic has devised a conceptual plan to manipulate the moon with solar panels.

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

He claims his proposal would provide uninterrupted power supply to oxygen-producing facilities 100% of the time, with a sufficient number of panels always exposed to the sun.

Gordon published his view in the academic journal Renewable energy earlier this year and was subsequently invited to give a lecture 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 the Glenn campus were competing with other scientists pushing for a nuclear solution.

“NASA wants a reliable, long-life, minimum-mass system,” he said. “Reliability comes even before cost.”

In the initial stage of human colonization, only small amounts of energy will be needed, and NASA has already selected six companies to submit proposals, three based on solar energy and three based on nuclear fission.

However, considering the long term, NASA will need larger amounts of energy to extract water, which exists on the Moon in various states, and mine the lunar surface for metals to be used for lunar construction and separate these oxygen metals. which constitutes around 45% of stony deposits.

Gordon’s research began when he was approached a couple of years ago by an Israeli startup, The Helios Project, which is designing an oxygen-producing lunar reactor using a technology that requires very high temperatures.

A joint approach to funding from the Israel Innovation Authority did not bear fruit, and the partnership stalled, but not before Gordon had written his conceptual plan for a solar panel belt in the moon.

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

Oxygen extracted from the lunar regolith will serve human needs, but will be used primarily to fuel and refuel rockets and satellites in orbit.

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

With a million dollars currently needed for each kilogram of payload, costs could be reduced if it were possible to provide oxygen to lunar refueling stations.

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

Before starting, Gordon reviewed three options, one of which was nuclear, although as a solar energy expert he was looking to develop a solar alternative. The reference was to produce energy throughout the day.

The two solar options: generating solar power while the sun was shining and storing it in batteries during periods of darkness, or building twice as many solar plants as needed and each operating only half the time, proved to be prohibitively expensive.

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

His plan would see a ring of solar panels installed near one of the lunar poles; he used the north pole to illustrate. They would be located no higher (or lower, in the case of the South Pole) than latitude 88, to balance the advantage of a relatively short lunar circumference in these regions with the need to ensure that light periods shorter daytime hours still satisfy power demands.

The oxygen manufacturing factories would be located about 10 kilometers (six miles) closer to a pole. This would keep enough distance to prevent lunar dust generated during mining from covering the PV panels, but still keep the transmission lines relatively short.

The transmission lines themselves would not require any insulation, Gordon noted, because the lunar soil provides natural electrical insulation.

Experiments testing the PV panels’ strength against cosmic radiation looked promising, Gordon added. “PV should be able to survive cosmic radiation long enough to meet what is needed,” he said.

But the bigger concern, and the one that worried NASA, was how to adequately protect the humans who operated the oxygen factories and performed other tasks. “No answer yet,” he said.

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

Dealing with nuclear waste was a “good question,” he conceded, adding: “There would be nuclear contamination.”

He continued: “My impression at this point is that NASA is planning long-term nuclear reactors on the Moon and that the solar people are trying to persuade them otherwise or at least to have both technologies,” he said.

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

NASA did not respond by press time.

A prototype lunar oxygen production unit working under vacuum conditions in the Helios project laboratory. (Courtesy, The Helios Project)

The Helios Project, which last year signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate with Ispace Inc of Japanhopes to fly a small prototype of its oxygen factory to the Moon in 2025.

The plan is to produce a few tens of grams of oxygen to show a proof of concept, according to Jonathan Geifman, co-founder and CEO of Helios. A battery will probably be used to do this.

Jonathan Geifman, Co-Founder and CEO of Helios (Courtesy)

Geifman said the ultimate goal was to produce 1,000 tons of oxygen per month, enough to fuel SpaceX spacecraft. Powered by liquid oxygen and liquid methane, the spacecraft would be “the primary workhorse for all activity in the near future.”

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

Earlier this year, former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe became the second Israeli in space, paying the privately owned Axiom Space to join three others to fly to the International Space Station.

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

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