WE ARE GOING BACK TO THE MOON
THE WHITE PAPER... KINDA
On April 5th, 2021, Ararat Robotics was born with a mission to enable humanity to become a multi-planetary society. We soon realized that humanity’s next step would be to build upon the achievements of the entire NASA team behind the Apollo moon landings and return to the moon permanently. However, before such a task could be undertaken, various technological hurdles need to be overcome.
One of the most important hurdles is in-situ resource utilization which would enable early settlers to draw from the elements on the moon to make their bases orders of magnitude more cost-effective to sustain. Thus Ararat Robotics began to charge in that direction by initiating the creation of a 70-page White Paper.
This White Paper, which draws on hundreds of hours worth of research by the Ararat Robotics team, covers everything from the elements and compounds found on the moon, their potential uses, the dozens of ways to extract them, and finally the economics of doing so.
While this post is not the White Paper, it is a summary of the current state of the White Paper and how it will impact our future decisions as an organization. The actual White Paper will be released in August for not only internal use but also for public use relating to research and to make the case for space for the people of Earth. With that being said, let's start from the beginning of the White Paper and ultimately why in-situ resource utilization is so important: the elements.
The above charts represent the percentages of respective elements and compounds throughout the entirety of the moon. What’s clear from this chart is that while oxygen is not found on its own on the moon as a gas, it is the most common element on the moon by mass with a large margin.
On the other hand, hydrogen and carbon are not prominent enough to even be featured on these charts. In fact, we currently don’t even know where exactly the majority of hydrogen and carbon are located as we just have educated guesses. These guesses are represented in Fig. 3 & Fig. 4.
In order to get a better idea of where the water and carbon are, NASA is sending multiple rover missions to the moon such as the Moon Ranger and VIPER. However, until the results of these missions come back in the next 2-5 years, we do not have a reliable baseline to guide the mission development process. Thus due to the lack of information about hydrogen and carbon, Ararat Robotics began to explore oxygen extraction further.
In addition, to the fact that the location of oxygen is far more well known given that there is essentially an endless supply of it throughout the lunar surface, oxygen by far has the business case for it in terms of its potential utility for a variety of purposes. Aside from its use in breathable air (a scarce resource outside of earth) at a rate of 0.84kg per day, oxygen is the most significant component of most rocket fuel (Novak 3).
The rocket that is most likely to land on the moon in the next 5 years is the HLS variant of the starship as a part of NASA’s Artemis program which is tasked with bringing humans back to the surface of the moon. The 2nd stage of starship (the stage of the rocket landing on the moon) uses raptor engines. These engines use a mixture of methane and oxygen so that its fuel mixture is 78% Oxygen, 16.5% Carbon, and 5.5% Hydrogen by mass (Musk August 12, 2021). Fig.5 illustrates the ratio.
It is clear that oxygen has a higher mass compared with all the other elements combined implying that there is a larger demand for oxygen. In fact, 78% of the rocket's total fuel weight, or approximately 936 tons of oxygen would be needed to fully fill up starship (Lawler).
So now the question is how much monetary value oxygen or for the matter, any other element/compound extracted from the moon have from NASA’s perspective. In other words, we explored how much money NASA would save if refueling on the moon was an option? In order to figure this out, we created a physics simulator in a google sheets spreadsheet.
Rocket Fuel Composition By Percent Weight Fig. 5
In order to understand what goes into the calculations, one must understand that there are two types of refueling that could be done with Starship. One of which requires other rockets to take off from earth and refuel the starship as it sits in Low Earth Orbit while the other option (the one Ararat Robotics hopes to make possible) includes refueling starship when it lands on the moon so it can make its way back to the Lunar Space Station. While one clearly takes extra rocket launches in the form of refueling launches, Ararat Robotics produces all of its fuel on the moon and thus requires no rockets to carry our fuel to the lunar cargo starship.
Thus, the spreadsheet will calculate the amount of refueling rocket ships Starship would need in order to deliver 100 tons of payload to the moon depending on which elements Ararat Robotics can supply NASA with on the moon. Fig. 6 is a picture of one of the 5 tabs in the spreadsheet model.
Refueling Strategy and Cost Analysis Spreadsheet Fig. 6.
Just this tab of the spreadsheet has plenty of complex calculations to unpack and for the full methodology and list of formulas used, you can go to the White Paper when it is released in the following weeks.
For the purposes of this shortened white paper, we will only focus on the results this spreadsheet gave the team. There were five scenarios considered in this spreadsheet. Ararat robotics:
Rocket Launches Needed With Vs Without Ararat Robotics Supply Of Various Fuel Components Fig. 7.
The cost-benefit analysis of oxygen use shows the benefits of using Ararat Robotics supplied oxygen vs the extra 4 refueling rockets required by the current method proposed by NASA/SpaceX. Even if Elon Musk’s optimistic estimate of 10 million dollars per rocket launch in the future is taken into account, that would mean that NASA is willing to pay a minimum of 40 million dollars for the oxygen Ararat Robotics would have supplied. However, if we took the current costs of transporting oxygen low earth orbit - $3,233/kg for Falcon Heavy with full reuse - the actual cost for topping off a starship would be 3,879,600,000 dollars (SpaceX). This is almost certainly an overestimate and the real cost would likely lie in the hundreds of millions due to radical technological advancements in the field of rocketry but regardless the profit potential for Ararat Robotics is clear.
The spreadsheet also demonstrates that even though oxygen is significantly easier to find compared with carbon and water, it returns similar performance gains to SpaceX and NASA compared to water (both being 4 rockets fewer) and has radically higher gains when compared to carbon (1 rocket fewer). Thus, this spreadsheet makes it clear that oxygen is likely the way to go if Ararat Robotics had to choose one resource to pursue.
With the information learned about the viability of oxygen, Ararat Robotics has spent much of the last few months exploring the different methods of oxygen extraction. It is important to note that there is no extraction method that is strictly better than another one as all of them have advantages in different areas such as the percent of oxygen obtained for each kilogram of regolith, the speed of the reaction, or even the energy and heat requirements for the reaction to happen.
One of the best candidates for oxygen extraction was Molten Regolith Electrolysis Fig.8. In Molten Regolith Electrolysis, oxygen is separated from the other elements in the regolith without the use of an electrolyte or any resource that has to be resupplied via rockets from Earth. In addition, Molten Regolith Electrolysis reactors have the potential of extracting up to 95% of the oxygen contained within a chunk of regolith. However, in order to obtain all of the oxygen, an operating temperature of almost 2900 °K must be obtained with energy costs of 56kW (Schreiner 58 and 3). If run for a full year, approximately 10,000 kg of oxygen would be extracted(Schreiner 3). The costs of obtaining this power and the reactor itself are about $634 million when the prices of transporting the sources of power (solar panels) and the reactor are taken into account. Although this cost is steep, when our previous calculations regarding the oxygen produced are taken into account, within 3 years over 100 million dollars worth of profit is projected with an additional 255 million dollars worth of profit coming in with every coming year. That is because the cost to transport 10,000 kg of oxygen from Earth would be approximately $25,550/kg according to current launch cost estimations. A quick note that the reason we assumed that the only alternative to Ararat Robotics supplying fuel is to get it from Earth is that it is likely that for the first few years oxygen production would not be sufficient to embark on rocket refuelings. That is because rockets need two orders of magnitude more fuel than what the reactor proposed could supply per year.
Molten Regolith Electrolysis Fig. 8
Although Molten Regolith Electrolysis is certainly promising, Ararat Robotics has also been looking into other methods of extracting oxygen - both previously researched methods and methods where limited to no research has been completed. For instance, Hydrogen Reduction is a very well-known method where hydrogen reacts with iron oxides in order to create water which can then be converted to oxygen through electrolysis. While this method can only realistically obtain 10% of the oxygen from a given chunk of lunar regolith, it promises to create oxygen at faster rates which will likely aid in profitability.
In addition, Ararat Robotics is exploring a means of extracting oxygen from lunar regolith using hydrogen fluoride which has previously been unexplored for application in the field of in-situ resource utilization on the moon. Throughout the following month, Ararat Robotics will complete a thorough analysis and a research paper via the NASA LSpace program where we have the potential to win 10k dollars in funding and more afterwards.
In the meantime, a significant amount of the Ararat Robotics team will continue developing the 70-page white paper to include the results of our findings on oxygen extraction using hydrogen fluoride and the several other key methods of resource extraction that we have identified. As mentioned earlier it is likely that in August of 2022 we will release the entire white paper for external consumption.
After the white paper’s release, Ararat Robotics will begin conducting tests on key technologies. Our immediate goal will be to test the aforementioned technologies using a cube satellite which will be launched in the following years. After which, Ararat Robotics will launch a robotic mission to the moon to confirm the commercial viability of our business model.
If you found the mission of Ararat Robotics interesting and would like to contribute, please apply to join our team over at our Careers page. If you would like to support us financially, check out the For-Investors page, or if you are into cool space tech gear or crypto check out our Shop. Additionally to never miss what we are doing, sign up for the newsletter, join the Discord Server, and follow us on all social media channels.