How Helios Are Making ISRU Technology To Extract Minerals From Lunar And Martian Soil
Tell us your background and about Helios
I was enlisted in the Israeli armed forces as an infantry officer. Space was a passion of mine since a young age and, at one point, I decided to step up and to establish a space venture.
Helios develops space resources technologies, specifically to extract oxygen and metals from the lunar soil. The big space agencies, SpaceX, Blue Origin etc all aim to establish a permanent lunar base in the coming decade and one of the main bottlenecks is the extremely high cost of sending materials from Earth to the Moon. The only viable way to realize this endeavour is by utilizing resources on site and dramatically reducing the cost of sourcing materials for the base.
We are 7 partners, 6 in Israel and 1 in Florida (our Florida office will be expanded soon). We secured so far approximately $120,000 in funding.
How did the idea for Helios come about and what was it like getting started?
After deciding I wish to establish a space venture, I was researching what piece was missing in the puzzle of enabling human life beyond earth that I can try and tackle.
The only viable way to realize this endeavour is by utilizing resources on site and dramatically reducing the cost of sourcing materials for the base.
It occurred to me that ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) technologies are going to be the next crucial step. The big launchers are already operating, the next generation of commercial lunar landers is coming in the next 3-5 years and being able to utilize resources on site on the Moon and Mars is critical to make this happen.
While researching, I started emailing NASA's former ISRU project manager (later he joined the company as an advisor). I flew to Florida to meet with him and went to the Space Resources Roundtable in Golden, CO. From all these experiences I learned about a process that was researched by MIT for NASA over a decade ago. This process is called Molten Regolith Electrolysis – melting the lunar regolith (soil) and electrolyzing it to separate the vast amount of oxygen from the various metals that constitute the regolith. Sounds simple, but very challenging to do without using consumables to feed the system.
Turning this idea into reality was challenging and mainly relied on finding the right partners and advisors. Luckily, the space resources community is small and everyone knows everyone, so I managed to quickly establish good relations with the world's top authorities in the field. In addition, space is exciting and recruiting excellent partners and employees is probably easier than in other industries.
In the beginning, the uncertainty of making this project happen was quite big. Spending a lot of personal resources to fly all over the world to go to conferences and wondering if we are ever going to walk the walk and not only talk the talk.
Space is exciting and recruiting excellent partners and employees is probably easier than in other industries.
It became real only 6 months after we incorporated the company and won a government grant of $65,000 so we could start testing our concepts in the lab.
How did you fund the company initially?
I spent my own money in the beginning then, when more partners joined, they helped in funding the project as well. After 6 months we won a government grant of $65,000 which accumulated with our own money to approximately $100,000, then this month (May 2020) we secured another $20,000 in funding.
That money enabled us to travel and acquire top authorities in the field as advisors. It also enabled us to test our concepts in the lab, establish our own small lab and file a patent.
Why is the problem you are solving important and how does it help human space exploration?
Sending anything to the Moon from Earth costs a ridiculous amount of money. It is currently publicly quoted at around $1 million to $4 million USD per kg (~2 lbs). Establishing a permanent base on the Moon or even just to have recurring visits to the Moon by astronauts will require hundreds of tonnes of material annually, and eventually thousands of tonnes.
Just to put the numbers into perspective: launching 4 astronauts back from the Moon to Earth will require about 10 tonnes of oxygen just to burn the rocket propellant. Bringing along everything from Earth is just not economically viable in the long run. Therefore, ISRU technologies must be developed in order to enable this great endeavour.
ISRU technologies must be developed in order to enable this great endeavour.
Luckily, the lunar regolith is ~45% oxygen by mass, which is the most needed consumable (to burn fuel). The rest of it is made of silicon, iron, aluminium, titanium and more materials that are highly needed.
But how do we extract these elements from the soil? Human beings were doing so for several millennia with iron so the concept is not new. But doing so without losing the oxygen and without using any consumables to feed the process so the system can eventually run independent of Earth is very challenging and has never been done commercially in a scalable manner.
This is also why our solution is unique. Earth independence is the ultimate goal to make humankind multi-planetary. Another unique feature to the MRE process (Molten Regolith Electrolysis) is that it is a one stop shop kind of process, and this is crucial on the Moon because of the extremely abrasive nature of the lunar regolith (we want to mess with it as little as possible to not wear the equipment on site).
Lastly, we aim for the process to be universal, so it can work on the Moon, Mars, Earth, Ceres and maybe even Callisto in the far future (I think Callisto should be the next destination for a human presence after Mars).
What are some achievements you're proud of?
As we are developing a technology to a market that is yet to exist, getting endorsement letters from NASA's ISRU project leader and from the director of CLASS (Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science) was critical for us to know that we are in the right direction.
Forming a collaboration with CLASS to conduct experiments together in the University of Central Florida, they have a team of highly talented researchers.
Winning a government grant was also an important achievement that put our R&D on track.
Lastly, gathering exceptionally capable partners and advisors that are world authorities in their fields is what makes Helios into a company that will achieve great things.
What have been some of your biggest challenges? How did you overcome them?
This whole venture is a non-stop challenge since day one. Hurdles are to be dealt with daily, from materials that get stuck in customs and delaying research to cash flow challenges that require constant attention.
Earth independence is the ultimate goal to make humankind multi-planetary.
If I had to pinpoint one main challenge that we deal with, it’s that it is not easy to raise money for a venture that has no existing market - whether it's grant money or investors money. The strategy to deal with this problem is to strengthen your business case with letters of endorsement from the big space agencies and industry, and even better to find viable terrestrial spin-offs to the technology that can create income in the relatively near future.
As a business owner of 2 other businesses, I can say that making a business profitable out of only 1 product or service is quite hard by itself, so developing a spin-off product to make money while working on our main product seems like an impossible feat. But this is what must be done in order to eventually sell oxygen on the Moon. How? Only by attracting the cream of the crop in terms of engineers and researchers to join our ranks.
What are exciting milestones coming up for Helios?
A major milestone for us will come by the end of 2020 with a fully operating small scale prototype of the MRE system.
Our 3 years main goal is to launch a small-scale demonstration to the Moon to test our technology in the real lunar environment. Following that demonstration, we will be able to design our commercial product.
What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?
Do your research, read, go to conferences and talk with the leaders of your industry. By doing so you can learn what are the real problems to solve.
Don't be afraid of bringing more partners to join your venture for equity (we are 7 partners), it is better to have 0.1% of Google than 100% of nothing. That said, when having many partners, it is important to define roles and hierarchy very well so things can run as smoothly as possible and decision making is efficient.
Stay lean. Especially because when it comes to the space resources industry and space exploration in general, return of investment is expected to be farther ahead. Learning from space resources companies that raised a lot of money and eventually got closed, you must be calculated with the money you raise, define accurate milestones for each raise and hire the minimum you need to accomplish these milestones.
Do your research, read, go to conferences and talk with the leaders of your industry.
When thinking about financing, try to be creative, as grants and investors are not the only way. Space ventures have a unique feature that nearly no other industry has - they are damn exciting! When used wisely, PR can be utilized to create additional cash to the company. A good example for this is crowd funding, letting space fans take part in your adventure gives them real value, and value equals money.
How can the public support you with your mission?
We will need to hire electrochemists, mechanical engineers, space systems engineers and material engineers in 4-5 months both in Israel and Florida (Orlando and the Space Coast area), so feel free to send us your CV/resume if you wish to join.
Where can people find out more about Helios and follow along?
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