When astronauts return to the moon in the next decade, they will do more with dust than leave footprints in it.
A British company won a contract with the European Space Agency to develop technology to convert moon dust and rocks into oxygen, leaving behind powders of aluminum, iron and other metals for construction workers on the surface of the moon to build on.
If the process can be made to work well enough, it will pave the way for extraction facilities on the moon that produce oxygen and valuable materials on the surface, rather than having to transport them into space at an exorbitant cost.
“Anything you take from Earth to the Moon is an extra weight that you don’t want to carry, so if you can make these materials on site it will save you a lot of time, effort and money,” said Department Manager Ian Mellor, Director of Metalyss based in Sheffield.
Analyzes of rocks brought from the moon revealed that oxygen makes up about 45% of the matter by weight. The rest is largely made of iron, aluminum, and silicon. In work published this year, scientists at Metalsase and the University of Glasgow found that they could extract 96% of the oxygen from simulated lunar soil, leaving behind useful metal alloy powders.
NASA and other space agencies are in advanced preparations for a return to the moon, this time to create a permanent lunar base, or “moon village,” where nations will work alongside private companies on vital technologies such as life support, habitat building, energy generation and food production.
The Esa contract will finance the nine-month Metalysis process to perfect an electrochemical process that releases oxygen from moon dust and rocks by sending an electric current through the material. This process is already in use on Earth, but oxygen is released as an unwanted by-product of mineral extraction. To make it work for lunar explorers, oxygen must be captured and stored.
Under the contract, the company will try to increase the yield and purity of oxygen and minerals from the rocks while reducing the amount of energy consumed by the process. If the technology looks promising, the next step will be to demonstrate oxygen extraction on the moon.
The oxygen released from the lunar surface can be combined with other gases to produce breathable air, but it is also a vital component of rocket fuel that can be manufactured on the moon and used as refueling on spacecraft bound for deep space.
“If you want to go further into space, it’s basically a gas station on the moon, to get into deeper space,” Melor said.
Mark Sims, who works on the process at the University of Glasgow, said moon rocks represent a “tremendous potential source of oxygen” to support human exploration of a satellite on Earth and the wider solar system.
“Oxygen is useful not only for astronauts to breathe, but also as an oxidizing agent in rocket propulsion systems,” he said. “There is no free oxygen on the moon, so astronauts have to take all the oxygen with them to the moon, to support life and enable their return journey. This adds significantly to the weight and thus at the expense of restricted rocket launches for the moon.”
“In the future, if we want to travel extensively in space and establish bases on the moon and Mars, we will need to create or find the things needed to support life: food, water and breathable air,” said Sue Horn, head of space exploration at the British Space Agency.
For more than four decades, human space exploration has been limited to missions to the International Space Station, an outpost 220 miles above Earth. In the coming years, the focus will be on building a new station in orbit around the moon, which will serve as a stopping point for humans to establish a presence on the surface of the moon, and perhaps as a base to launch from it to the outside. Mars.
The Lunar Gateway has set itself an ambitious goal of returning humans to the moon early in 2024, with crews being transported aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The missile is expected to make its first flight without a crew next year.
Esa provided power and propulsion units for Orion’s maiden flight and agreed to contracts to build the main crew unit for the lunar station.