The HELIOS project arose from a desire to learn more about extra-terrestrial resource extraction outside of our primary projects (Sabatier Fuel Plant, Mars Expandable Airlock). In order to make interstellar colonization a possibility, it is necessary to have the ability to mine off-planet and use resources in our solar system to their fullest. Thus, the core focus of this project was to study the economic viability of using interplanetary (for this case – the moon) resources.
The subject of interest for the HELIOS Team was the Lunar extraction of Helium-3 (He-3) for nuclear fusion. The goal of the sub-team was to propose a process design that is economically and politically feasible for a mining operation on the Lunar surface. He-3 has been researched as a potential alternative energy source via nuclear fusion for a few decades now. However, as the main source of He-3 usually comes from the maintenance of nuclear weapons, its supply is extremely limited on Earth (< 15 kg/annum).
The general process is broken down into three parts, similar to mines on Earth:
Extraction – The physical acquisition of the Regolith from the lunar surface
Liberation – Heating the mined lunar rock, to liberate He-3
Processing – The final stage of preparing He-3 for transport
In its raw form, it has many applications in science and medicine which makes it valuable priced at $2000/L due to current supply and demand. Since Helium is not very heavy nor dense, it takes nearly 6000 L to weigh 1 kg, therefore 1 kg of He-3 costs over 10 million dollars!
As a result, the HELIOS team identified key parameters required for a feasible Lunar extraction operation and the potential challenges associated with the development of such a process. The findings were highlighted in a report that we were fortunate to have the opportunity to present at The International Astronautical Congress 2019 in Washington DC.