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Building the first experimental payload to make oxygen on the moon

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced it has chosen a team to make oxygen on the moon. The team, led by aerospace manufacturer Thales Alenia Space, will design and build a payload to create oxygen from lunar soil.

As the moon has no atmosphere, future explorers will need to bring everything they need to survive with them. But carrying oxygen into space using rockets is inefficient, so it would be better if astronauts could find ways to make what they need in the places they are exploring. This principle is called in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) and is a key idea for future missions to the moon and Mars.

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ESA research fellow Alexandre Meurisse and Beth Lomax of the University of Glasgow producing oxygen and metal out of simulated moondust inside ESA's Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory.
ESA research fellow Alexandre Meurisse and Beth Lomax of the University of Glasgow producing oxygen and metal out of simulated moondust inside ESA’s Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory. ESA–A. Conigili

The payload for the moon will be designed to create between 50 and 100 grams of oxygen from the dusty material which covers the moon, called regolith. The aim is to extract 70% of the available oxygen in the sample within a 10 day period. That time limit is because it will need to operate within the window of available solar power in a lunar day, which is around two weeks long.

Previous experiments and concepts have shown that it is possible to extract oxygen from lunar regolith, which is made up of around 40 – 45% oxygen by weight. Now, the challenge is to make a workable system within the constraints of size and materials.

“The payload needs to be compact, low power, and able to fly on a range of potential lunar landers, including ESA’s own European Large Logistics Lander, EL3,” said David Binns, Systems Engineer from ESA’s Concurrent Design Facility, in a statement.

If the team can meet this challenge, the technology has the potential to enable future crewed moon missions, Binns said: “Being able to extract oxygen from moonrock, along with useable metals, will be a game-changer for lunar exploration, allowing the international explorers set to return to the Moon to ‘live off the land’ without being dependent on long and expensive terrestrial supply lines.”

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