When NASA puts humans back on the surface of the moon as early as 2025, will Luxembourg be ready to play its part? Silicon Luxembourg caught up with Dr Kathryn Hadler, director of the European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC), to learn more about the opportunities these missions present for the space ecosystem.
Source : siliconluxembourg.lu
Publication date : 03/13/2023
NASA’s Artemis missions are scheduled to put humans back on the Moon as early as 2025. What are ESRIC’s ambitions when it comes to supporting NASA in these missions?
ESRIC was formed as the result of a partnership between ESA, LSA and LIST. We are currently just over 2 years old and still relatively small in terms of the size of our team. Despite our relative youth and small size, we are very well positioned on the global scene in terms of space resources activity, and we have a great relationship with our partners in the USA, including NASA, who have been working in this domain for some time. Our current strategy is aligned with ESA’s space resources strategy, focusing firstly on the production of oxygen from the lunar soil rather than focusing on water found in permanently shadowed regions – this is the potential resource that NASA are planning to learn more about from their Artemis programme – however, we see that there are many areas of shared interest and we are very keen on being a key link between ESA and NASA in space resources activities.
If successful, an entire lunar economy will be created. What can the Luxembourg government do now to put our space ecosystem in a competitive position when the time comes?
The Luxembourg government and Luxembourg Space Agency (LSA) have already introduced many initiatives that put Luxembourg in a competitive position in the field of space resources. In fact, in our field, Luxembourg is widely known as being one of the most attractive places to set up a space resources company. There is a real cluster now of exciting start-ups and more established businesses located here, and that, in turn, brings in more companies. The foundations are certainly there for Luxembourg to take a leading role in a new space economy.
You’re an expert on In-Situ Resources Utilisation. Can you explain what this area of research deals with and how relevant it will become once we build a lunar economy?
In-Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) is the term used to describe the extraction and use of space resources in space, for example, to enable space exploration. Often the first topic that springs to mind when we talk about space resources is asteroid mining – the concept that we bring back to Earth metals from asteroids that we currently mine in huge quantities with significant environmental impact. In contrast, ISRU is focused on the resources that we can use to extend human space exploration. This includes oxygen and water for life support and propellant, manufacturing and construction of habitation and infrastructure, and supplying energy needs. The research in this field is truly cross-discipline – we need to understand the resources that are available and develop technologies to move, extract, construct, store and supply useful products, all in the harsh environment of the Moon, Mars and beyond. These technologies are required in order to build the lunar economy.
What are some of the main research gaps that ESRIC is trying to find answers to?
One of the great opportunities we have with space resources is to demonstrate how resources can be used in a zerowaste way that minimises environmental impact – basically learning the lessons of our resource use on Earth. We are currently exploring ways to use the waste products from the production of oxygen from the lunar soil, for example. We also have active research projects in the characterisation of lunar resources using remote sensing data, beneficiation of lunar soil and water purification. We address research topics across the space resources value chain, with the goal to be able to develop end-to-end processes for space resources, built on the foundations of sustainable and responsible use of resources.
Which Luxembourg space companies do you expect to play a role in future lunar missions?
There are so many exciting space companies in Luxembourg, I hope to see them all with a role in the future of space. Ispace, for example, is already on its way to the Moon, but I also hope we’ll see companies such as Maana Electric, Lunar Outpost and Gradel join them. At ESRIC, we are watching very carefully the development of the start-ups that have been through our Start-up Support Programme, such as Four Point, who were selected from the first round of the programme last year to be incubated at Technoport.
In the best of cases, how big of a role can a country the size of Luxembourg expect to play in the future of lunar exploration?
Luxembourg is definitely playing a major role in putting in place the business support and expertise to be a major player in the future of space exploration. It is impressive to see how well the country is regarded in this field. Although it is unlikely that there will be a Luxembourg space programme of the scale of some of the major nations (USA, China etc), the country hosts the companies that will provide some of the key enabling infrastructure for future space missions, and this is enormously exciting.