Science and Exploration

Cislune Wins Four NASA Contracts to Develop the Infrastructure for a Lunar Gas Station

By Brynn Shaffer
June 13, 2023
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Cislune Wins Four NASA Contracts to Develop the Infrastructure for a Lunar Gas Station
Rendering of a lunar base camp.
Image credit: NASA.

Cislune, a technology lab working to accelerate the timeline of placing humanity back on the Moon, took home four big wins this year in the form of NASA contracts when the space agency announced the winners of Phase I of its 2023 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program on June 5.

Cislune, which received two SBIRs and two STTRs, is working to create the core technologies that will allow for lunar tourism, and eventually, long-term human settlement on the Moon. Cislune has previously won NASA grants from 2021 and 2022 that contributed to that same overall mission

“There are still a lot of technologies that need to be solved” before establishing a long-term presence on the Moon, Erik Franks, Cislune CEO and founder told SpaceRef

Of the SBIR grants, one highlights the need to “minimize the volatile sublimation during excavation,” to avoid losing lunar ice in the handling process, and the other suggests using “basalt brackets for truss structures” to strengthen power production by reducing energy inputs.

And for the STTR grants, the first, which was created in collaboration with the University of Central Florida Board of Trustees, is called “refuse-to-get-stuck rovers,” suggesting that lunar rovers must be able to drive quicker and more autonomously. The second grant, awarded alongside Westmont College, called “deflector cone and vented launch pad,” focuses on ways to improve vehicle launch pad infrastructure.

“As we saw with the SpaceX Starship launch out of Starbase in South Texas, there’s a lot of challenges with having a launch pad,” said Franks. By deflecting cones and venting the launch pad, Cislune officials believe it can avoid the type of damage the world saw at Starbase.

Sample rendering of Cislune tech extracting lunar resources to produce rocket propellant. Image credit: Phil Metzger / UCF.

Ultimately, all four grants, which were awarded with phase I solicitation, will begin development in the next few months, once the contracts are finalized. NASA awards every proposal with $150,000 which is to be used only during the period of performance, which is six months for SBIR and 13 months for STTR, respectively. In the meantime, Cislune is gearing up to apply for phase II solicitation — a larger and very competitive opportunity with a longer term of research and bigger grant that is more focused on hardware design — and will continue to pave the way for lunar habitation to become a reality.

Cislune, whose main goal is to “power the future of space exploration by producing and supplying crucial lunar-derived propellants,” is planning to do so by developing the infrastructure to extract water from the permanently-shadowed craters on the lunar surface and, via electrolysis, turning that water into propellants for refueling rockets.

“The idea is that the landing site will be at the South Pole, very close to one of the permanently shadowed regions — but outside of it — and the rover would be deployed from the lander to drive into the permanently shadowed crater and our payload would be able to excavate the icy regolith… drive out of the crater, take it to a water processor right next to the landing pad, turn that into fuel, fuel up the rocket, and then return,” Franks told SpaceRef.

By creating a self-refueling system on the Moon, Cislune would enable missions to take off directly to and from the Moon without needing to backtrack to Earth. Ultimately, this would drastically reduce the cost of lunar-lander travel, making human settlement on the Moon more of a feasible — and sustainable — goal.

In the long run, Cislune also wants to be able to refuel spacecraft that are already in orbit. After all, payloads cannot carry enough gas to live forever. 

“And that’s the challenge,” said Franks, “every satellite, almost, they generally don’t die of equipment failure, they just run out of gas… so these $100 million to $1 billion satellites, just like the James Webb Space Telescope, they just run out of gas. And the last kind of propulsion or rocket-firing they do is to either deorbit into Earth’s atmosphere and burnout or, if they are in geosynchronous orbit, they do a rocket firing to go into what’s literally called a ‘graveyard orbit.’” 

Refueling satellites or spacecraft already in orbit would allow for missions to extend their lifetime, again minimizing cost and labor. As the company grows, Cislune hopes to work with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, where they can act as a supplier of propellants for their missions that they’ve been contracted with by NASA — like Artemis 3, 4, and 5. “It’s a big opportunity to reduce the cost of space access,” said Franks.

With the proper funding, Franks believes this ‘gas station of the future’ can be operating at full capacity as early as 2027.

Brynn Shaffer.

Brynn Shaffer is a Los Angeles based journalist, covering local news, life/arts, entertainment, business, as well as the aerospace industry. She's a graduate of Loyola Marymount University.