NASA considers building an oxygen pipeline in the lunar south pole

In space, no one can hear a pipeline leak hiss.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the lunar pipeline concept.
An artist's impression of the lunar pipeline concept.

NASA / Peter Curreri 

NASA is considering whether to use an oxygen pipeline to efficiently transport oxygen to various locations around the lunar south pole for its upcoming Artemis missions.

It is doing so after Peter Curreri, Chief Science Officer at Lunar Resources Inc., detailed problems with NASA's existing plans for transporting oxygen using rovers.

Curreri filed a proposal to the space agency's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program and he was one of 14 research teams awarded $175,000 in funding to develop their concepts.

NASA Lunar pipeline concept could make life easier for future Artemis astronauts

The proposed lunar pipeline, officially named the Lunar South Pole Oxygen Pipeline (LSPOP), would connect to NASA's lunar ice extraction hub in the lunar south pole. NASA, China, and Russia are all targeting the lunar south pole due to the fact it features vast quantities of ice and other resources just bellow the moon's surface.

That ice will form a crucial part of NASA's plans to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, as it can be extracted and converted into drinking water and oxygen that can be used for breathing as well as for rocket fuel.

In a recent statement posted on NASA's website, Curreri wrote that the "current funded efforts for in-situ oxygen extraction consist of bottling the oxygen in compressed gas tanks or to liquefy and store it in dewars. Either approach requires trucking tanks or dewars to various facilities for use. The process of moving this oxygen on rovers is more energy intensive than the extraction process and is thought to be the MOST expensive aspect in obtaining in-situ oxygen for use on the Moon considering the long distances a resource extraction area will be from a human habitat or liquefication plant."

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NASA considers building an oxygen pipeline in the lunar south pole
NASA and SpaceX's Artemis III mission will be the first to send humans to the lunar south pole.

In other words, NASA's plan is to store ice in cryogenic pressure vessels and transport it in lunar rovers. They would likely have to transport the ice to a region nearer the moon's equator, as lunar habitats will also require the extra sunlight that region would provide.

Curreri's lunar pipeline concept, meanwhile, would provide constant access to oxygen for lunar settlers. It would also do this at the same time as drastically cutting costs that would otherwise be associated with transportation. Unlike pipelines on Earth, a leak on the moon wouldn't pollute. Instead, oxygen would simply escape into space as the moon doesn't have an atmosphere.

Building infrastructure on the moon

Lunar resources will test several different lunar pipeline prototypes, though it's starting out with a roughly 3-mile (5-km) concept. In his statement, Curreri wrote that "our starting concept is for a 5 km pipeline to transport oxygen gas from an oxygen production source, for example, our molten regolith electrolysis (MRE) extraction site or any other source, to an oxygen storage/liquification plant near a lunar base."

If NASA does eventually greenlight the LSPOP for its Artemis moon missions, it will be manufactured in segments on the moon before being fitted together into its full length. The pipeline will likely be manufactured out of aluminum, which is abundant in the lunar south pole.

Other concepts in consideration under NASA's NIAC program include a hybrid aircraft concept called TitanAir that could sail the seas of Saturn's moon Titan to collect samples. The space agency has posted a full list of the impressive space concepts it is considering as potential game-changers for astronomy, Earth science, and human space exploration.