Here's how we will extract and create oxygen on the Moon. Credit: ESA

We are Extracting Oxygen from the Moon—Here’s How It Will Work

The European Space Agency has selected a team of five European companies to design and build the first experimental payload to extract oxygen from regolith on the lunar surface.

It is expected that for 10 days of work onboard the lunar lander, it will receive 50-100 grams of oxygen from the lunar regolith, according to the agency’s website.


Long-term survival on the Moon

To ensure a long stay of astronauts on the Moon and the supply of lunar bases, technologies for extracting resources or creating building materials from raw materials available on the surface of the Earth’s natural satellite are needed.

In particular, one of the most important resources will be oxygen, which is needed for people to breathe and as a component of rocket fuel needed to refuel ships and descent modules.

Studies of the Moon by Soviet automatic probes and American astronauts have shown that oxygen ranks first in terms of mass fraction in regolith – it accounts for 40-45 percent. Knowing the exact composition of lunar rocks makes it possible to produce a simulator of similar content from terrestrial minerals, which is many times cheaper and more accessible than the original.

In recent years, scientists have proposed many potential methods for extracting oxygen from regolith, but they either have a poor yield (a few percent of the element content is released), or use other valuable reagents in large quantities (hydrogen, methane, and others), or involve technologically complex melting of regolith, for which it is necessary to maintain a temperature above 1600 degrees.

Here’s how we can extract oxygen on the Moon

On March 9, 2022, the European Space Agency summed up the results of the ExPeRT (Exploration Preparation, Research, and Technology) competition by selecting a team that will design and build the first experimental payload to extract oxygen from lunar regolith on the lunar surface.

It was led by Thales Alenia Space, the rest of the team: AVS, Metalysis, Open University, and Redwire Space Europe.

A simulated lunar regolith before (left) and after (right) oxygen extraction. Credit: Beth Lomax / University of Glasgow
A simulated lunar regolith before (left) and after (right) oxygen extraction. Credit: Beth Lomax / University of Glasgow

A prototype plant for producing oxygen from regolith was created at the Laboratory of Materials and Electrical Components of the European Center ESTEC.

It uses a direct deoxidation method through the FFC process, which involves the electrolysis of metal oxide powder in molten salts at high temperature, which allows the regolith dummy sample to be converted into a mixture of metal alloys, extracting almost all of the oxygen.

Artist's impression of the In-Situ process of obtaining oxygen on the Moon. Credit: ESA
Artist’s impression of the In-Situ process of obtaining oxygen on the Moon. Credit: ESA

The completed facility is expected to be compact, low-powered, and capable of being placed on various types of lunar landers, including the European EL3 lander, which is currently under development.

The facility will need to extract 50-100 grams of oxygen from the lunar regolith while maintaining an efficiency of 70 percent of the available oxygen in the sample. It will be powered by solar panels, so the duration of the experiment will be limited to 10 days.


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Sources:

ESA. (n.d.). Team chosen to make first oxygen on the Moon.
Lomax, B. A., Conti, M., Khan, N., Bennett, N. S., Ganin, A. Y., & Symes, M. D. (2019, September 19). Proving the viability of an electrochemical process for the simultaneous extraction of oxygen and production of metal alloys from lunar regolith. Planetary and Space Science.
Phys.org. (2022, March 9). Team chosen to be first to make oxygen on the Moon.
Young, C. (2022, March 10). A new lunar device can pull 70 percent of the oxygen from the Moon’s surface. Interesting Engineering.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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