The alliance between startups from Israel and Japan to generate oxygen on the moon

The alliance between startups from Israel and Japan to generate oxygen on the moon

Ispace and Helios Project want to test a project to extract oxygen and metals that could be of great importance for future long-term lunar missions

(Photo: Nasa) Generating oxygen on the Moon. A mission that until recently seemed impossible and which has now instead become the goal of two startups. Ispace and Helios Project, two startups respectively from Japan and Israel, which have closed a cooperation agreement for an experimental project which, if successful, could guarantee the feasibility of long-term lunar missions. Having oxygen available would mean being able to put the so-called "boots on the ground", or it would be better to say in orbit, without depending on terrestrial control.

According to the agreement, Helios will take part in two Ispace lunar missions between 2023 and 2025. The Japanese company will provide the equipment necessary for space travel and will make possible the on-site experiments of the Israeli startup. In the demonstration tests, we will try to extract oxygen by melting lunar soil samples at high temperature (1600 degrees Celsius) and electrolyzing them. Helios has developed a reactor, the Lunar Extractor-1, which it believes can process samples of lunar soil to extract not only oxygen, but also metals such as iron, aluminum and silicone. In the company's vision, the oxygen produced by the reactor, which will therefore operate independently of the Earth, will be stored as a propellant, while the metals will be used to build the infrastructure of future lunar bases. According to the plans, 250 kilograms of oxygen will be extracted for every ton of lunar soil. Helios claims that the same type of reactor can process soil samples collected on Mars.

This is the first collaboration between Israeli and Japanese private companies in aerospace, but it certainly does not come unexpectedly. Both countries are investing heavily in their respective industries. The Helios initiative itself received generous funds from the Israeli space agency in early 2021, while Ispace is among the many Japanese companies to have benefited from the support of the government and the Japanese space agency.

Only three countries so far - namely the United States, Russia and China - have managed to successfully land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. Ispace plans to join next year. In 2022 it will carry out its first lunar mission by transporting a rover developed by a team of engineers and scientists from the Mohammin bin Rashid Space Center in the United Arab Emirates on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The Japanese company will also provide the technology for communications on the lunar surface.

The US-Japan relationship

Ispace has also been chosen by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration to participate in its lunar regolith collection project as part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. The relationship with NASA is particularly close, so much so that Ispace is building a landing site in Colorado. It is a reflection of the broader positive relations between Japan and the United States. Faced with China's growing space ambitions, Washington focuses on cooperation with partners (including Tokyo) to establish a set of rules and principles for space exploration, as part of the Artemis Agreements.

In recent years, Japanese startups operating in the space sector have multiplied. Their work is considered fundamental on a global level in particular for the development of robotic and satellite technologies. The Japanese space program has always had commercial and scientific purposes, maintaining an exclusively civilian dimension. The Basic Space Law of 2008, however, updated the situation, modifying the structure of the Japanese space policy. The Cabinet Office has established the National Space Policy Office within the strategic headquarters for space policy, headed directly by the prime minister. A development operated in the image and likeness of the US National Space Council, a body within the executive office of the White House. This means that the Japanese aerospace ecosystem falls within a national strategic effort that includes security-related issues. Not surprisingly, the memorandum of understanding between Helios and Ispace was signed at the Japanese embassy in Tel Aviv. Space is now in effect a geopolitical issue.

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