A new lunar device can pull 70 percent of the oxygen from the Moon's surface

Europe will deploy the first lunar oxygen extraction device in the 2030s.
Chris Young
The ESA logistics lander.ESA/ATG-Medialab

The European Space Agency (ESA) selected the team that will design and build the first experimental payload to extract oxygen from the surface of the Moon.

The team, from Thales Alenia Space in the U.K., was selected following a competition for the best oxygen extraction device, a post from ESA reveals. ESA's Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration picked the Thales-led team after evaluating three rival designs.

Such devices can help to provide future missions with breathable oxygen as well as rocket propulsion. In fact, in April last year, NASA achieved a historic first by extracting oxygen from Mars thanks to a device called MOXIE that flew to the red planet aboard the Perseverance rover. 

Extracting oxygen from the Moon

The Thales Alenia Space team will develop a small piece of equipment that will help ESA to evaluate whether larger models would be feasible on the Moon.

The team's design will be able to extract 50-100 grams of oxygen from lunar regolith, which would be achieved by extracting approximately 70 percent of all available oxygen. As a point of reference, 5 grams of oxygen is enough for approximately 10 minutes of breathing time for astronauts.

The ESA oxygen extraction device would have to collect all oxygen within roughly a 10 day period, as the device would run on solar power, which would be severely limited once the fortnight-long lunar day turns into lunar night. 

"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 state-of-the-art Concurrent Design Facility.

"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," they continued.

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A full-scale model will go to the Moon in the 2030s

If all goes according to plan, we may see a full-scale model sent to the Moon aboard the ESA's logistics lander in the early 2030s. The ESA's Giorgio Magistrati, a team leader at the space agency, explained that the Thales team's device is paving the way for "a full-scale ISRU plant in place on the Moon in the early part of the following decade." 

The concept behind the new device has already been proven, so the Thales Alenia team has a strong foundation from which to work. That's because samples returned from the Moon have already confirmed that lunar regolith is composed of 40–45 percent oxygen by weight, in the form of oxides. The ESA's prototype oxygen plant in ESTEC's Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory has showcased an electrolysis-based process that separates the regolith into metals and oxygen, which will form key building blocks for the space habitats of the future.