Blue Origin makes a big lunar announcement without fanfare – Ars Technica

Enlarge / In this depiction, Blue Alchemist is shown building solar cells on the lunar surface.

Blue Origin

For decades, scientists and engineers have talked about using the dusty lunar surface to make solar panels. All the essential ingredients for solar cells are present in this rocky and dusty regolith on the moon’s surface – silicon, iron, magnesium, aluminum and more.

The abundance of these ingredients has led to hundreds of research papers exploring this idea since lunar soil was brought back to Earth during the Apollo program, but relatively little technical development. In other words, we don’t know if covering the moon with solar panels is just a great sci-fi idea or if it would actually work.

But now we may have an answer to the question. On Friday, in a blog post that wasn’t even promoted by the company’s Twitter account or any press release, Blue Origin quietly said that its “Blue Alchemist” program had been working on this exact issue for two years. Founded by Jeff Bezos, the company has manufactured both solar cells and power transmission wires from simulated lunar soil — a material chemically and mineralogically equivalent to lunar regolith.

The technical work is based on a process known as “molten regolith electrolysis” and Blue Origin has advanced the state of the art for the manufacture of solar cells. In this process, a direct electric current is applied to the simulated regolith at a high temperature of over 1,600° Celsius. This electrolysis process allows iron, silicon, and aluminum to be extracted from the lunar regolith. Blue Origin says it has produced silicon with greater than 99.999 percent purity by electrolyzing molten regolith.

Blue Alchemist’s most important advance is that its engineers and scientists used the byproducts of this reaction – and only these materials – to create solar cells as well as the protective glass cover that would allow them to survive on the moon for a decade or more Surface.

Blue Origin will seek to commercialize the technology to NASA to be used by their Artemis program to bring humans back to the moon in a “sustainable” way. NASA and its international partners are trying to differentiate Artemis from the Apollo program by staying longer on the moon and building infrastructure such as power supply systems.

“Although our vision is technically ambitious, our technology is now real,” the company said in its blog post. “Blue Origin’s goal of generating solar power using only lunar resources aligns with NASA’s primary development goal for the development of the Moon-to-Mars infrastructure.”

This is a notable research breakthrough because the same electrolysis process could also be used to produce metals to build habitats and other structures, as well as oxygen. These are all important for “living off the land” if people want to avoid the expense of having to bring everything from Earth to live and work in space. Although there is a long road from laboratory experiments to lunar manufacturing, these experiments are a crucial first step.

Blue Origin recently split its Advanced Development Programs business unit into two units, one focused on space systems like the Orbital Reef space station and another solely on lunar activity. It’s exciting to see Blue Origin begin publicly discussing its plans for a fully reusable lunar architecture. The company has been actively hiring in this space for years and there is a lot of interesting work like Blue Alchemist behind the scenes.

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