With its Artemis program, NASA wants to do more than just touch boots on the moon and come home. She wants a lasting human presence there. To achieve this, humanity will have to use local resources. This is where space company Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, hopes to help with its Blue Alchemist solar project.
Blue Origin has yet to reach Earth orbitbut he is already planning his life on the moon. In a statement last week, the company said it has been developing “solar cells and transmission wires from regolith simulants” since 2021 and has now fabricated a working solar cell prototype. Basically, it’s about turning moon dust into solar energy.
Lunar regolith is the surface material found on the moon. It’s very different from what we think of as typical earth soil, the kind of thing you grow plants in. Lunar regolith is a mixture of dust, rock chips, minerals and glass. A lunar regolith simulant is a reality surrogate designed to mimic the composition and properties of what is on the moon.
To obtain the materials for the solar cell, Blue Origin used a combination of extreme heat and electricity.
“Using regolith simulants, our reactor produces iron, silicon and aluminum by electrolysis of molten regolith, in which an electric current separates these elements from the oxygen to which they are bound,” the company said. Silicon is a key ingredient in the solar cell, and this process creates an extremely pure version of silicon suitable for solar. Blue Origin claims its method does not require the toxic chemicals that are often used for silicon purification on Earth.
The solar cell is covered in glass made from by-products of the regolith electrolysis process. Blue Origin estimates that solar cells made with this method could last more than a decade.
Blue Origin isn’t the only organization wanting to make moondust useful. NASA is working on melting lunar regolith and turn it into oxygen – much like Blue Origin does. Oxygen is needed for human life support systems and also to power future rocket launches from the moon. NASA is even studying the possibility of building an oxygen line on the moon.
NASA has previously backed Blue Origin as a way to get future missions from this rock. The agency selected Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket for a space mission to Mars that could be launched as early as next year.
Blue Origin’s vision of unlimited solar power on the moon is far from reality, but the working solar cell prototype points the way forward. “While our vision is technically ambitious, our technology is real now,” the company said.
Why not just make solar equipment here and send it to the moon? It’s expensive and difficult to ship tons of equipment to the lunar surface, so it makes sense to mine the resources that are already there. The same goes for future ambitions for human outposts on Mars. The moon could be a test bed for technologies that enable a sustainable human presence beyond Earth.