One of the goals of NASA's Artemis program is to consolidate the human presence on the Moon. Unlike the 1969 milestone, the return of manned missions to our natural satellite will usher in a new era of space exploration, this time with the intention of establishing the conditions to keep humans beyond the International Space Station.
One of the keys to achieving this is the use of on-site resources (ISRU), a method that proposes to take advantage of all the resources available in the place to live, work and complete the tasks of the missions that propose permanence. human beyond Earth's orbit; especially water, oxygen and methane.
Oxygen on the Moon: is it possible to extract it for breathing?
Unlike the oxygen we breathe on Earth, most of the oxygen on the Moon is not dispersed in its atmosphere, a thin layer made up mainly of argon and helium. Instead, the gas lies trapped within the lunar regolith, the outermost layer of stone and dust that covers its atmosphere.
Hence, extracting oxygen from the Moon is an unprecedented technological challenge, even more so when it comes to an operation that must be carried out 384,000 kilometers from the biosphere.
According to John Grant, Professor of Earth Sciences at Australia's Southern Cross University in an article for The Conversation , about 45% of the minerals that make up the lunar regolith contain oxygen.
Grant estimates that each cubic meter contains about 1.4 tons of oxygen. Considering only the most accessible material below the lunar surface and taking into account that according to NASA, humans require 800 grams of oxygen daily to survive, then the extraction of total lunar oxygen at a depth of ten meters would be enough to ensure the survival of the 8 billion people who inhabit the Earth today for the next 100,000 years.
“The extraction of oxygen from the lunar regolith would require a great deal of industrial equipment. We would first have to convert solid metal oxide to liquid, either by applying heat or by combining it with solvents or electrolytes. We have the technology to do this on Earth, but moving this device to the Moon (and generating enough power to operate it) will be a huge challenge,” explains Grant.
The first test to extract lunar oxygen
In October 2021, NASA signed an agreement with the Australian Space Agency with the aim of testing a rover capable of collecting and transporting lunar regolith to an in situ resource utilization system (ISRU), part of a commercial lunar lander. This vehicle will be part of Artemis's later missions:
“Installed on the lander, NASA's ISRU demonstration will try to extract oxygen from the lunar regolith. The soil contains oxygen in the form of chemical compounds in elements such as iron and silicon. The small-scale technology demonstration will help in the design of larger and more capable units in the future,” NASA explains in a statement. (Text and photos: National Geographic)
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