When astronauts return to the moon in the next decade, they will do more with dust than leave footprints on it.
British company won European Space Agency contract To develop technology to convert moon dust and rocks into oxygen, leaving behind aluminum, iron and other metal powders for lunar builders to build with.
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 Ian Mellor, Director of Administration, Sheffield-based Metalyss Manager.
Analyzes of rocks brought from the moon revealed that oxygen makes up about 45% of the matter by weight. The rest consists largely of iron, aluminum, and silicon. in a Published work this yearScientists at Metalsis and the University of Glasgow have found that they can extract 96% of the oxygen from simulated soil of the moon, 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 a lunar explorer, 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 to refuel spacecraft bound for deep space.
“If you want to go further into space, this is 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 satellites 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 flight. This adds significantly to the weight and thus at the expense of restricted rocket launches for the moon.”
Sue Horn, UK Head of Space Exploration Void “In the future, if we want to travel extensively in space and establish bases on the moon and Mars, we will need to make or find things that are required to support life: food, water and breathable air,” the agency said.
For more than four decades, human space exploration has been limited to missions to the International Space Station, a site orbit 220 miles above Earth. The focus in the coming years 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 for launching 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 the first Orion flight and agreed to contracts to build the main crew unit for the lunar station.