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Water and Oxygen From Lunar Rocks? How Astronauts Can Survive on the Moon

Life support on the moon just got a lot easier.

Water and Oxygen From Lunar Rocks? How Astronauts Can Survive on the Moon
An illustration of a future Moon base. ESA - P. Carril

Though large amounts of water and oxygen are present on the moon, the materials aren't easily accessible.

That's why scientists from the Polytechnic University of Milan, the European Space Agency, the Italian Space Agency, and space systems corporation OHB developed a new technique to harvest the elements from anywhere on the surface of the moon, a press statement reveals.

Extracting materials for survival on the Moon

The collaborating scientists devised a two-step process based on an existing technique used on Earth for industrial chemistry applications. The technique will allow astronauts to take advantage of the fact that approximately 50 percent of lunar soil consists of silicon or iron oxides, and these are both composed of roughly 26 percent oxygen. These materials are abundant all over the moon's surface, meaning the new technique could be deployed quickly from any landing site.

In lab tests, the researchers heated simulated lunar soil in a furnace to temperatures of around 1000 degrees ºC. They did this in the presence of hydrogen and methane in order to vaporize the soil, causing the oxygen-rich materials to convert directly from a solid into a gas. A catalytic converter was then used to separate the gases and the residual methane for water extraction. The water from that process is drinkable, and it can also be used for oxygen extraction via electrolysis. Hydrogen and methane left over from the process can also be reused for other purposes such as biofuel, while a solid byproduct rich in silica and metals could possibly be processed for building materials — crazier-sounding ideas have been proposed after all, such as the harvesting of astronaut blood as a binding agent for construction materials.

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An 'almost completely self-sustained closed-loop'

What's more, Prof. Michèle Lavagna of the Polytechnic University of Milan, one of the researchers on the project, explained that the rig used for their technique can be used in an "almost completely self-sustained closed loop, without the need for human intervention and without getting clogged up." He also added that "the capability of having efficient water and oxygen production facilities on-site is fundamental for human exploration and to run high-quality science directly on the moon."

Scientists around the world are working hard on new techniques for harvesting materials for future off-world missions. In April, NASA announced that its Perseverance rover mission had performed a historic first by extracting the first breathable oxygen from Mars with an experimental instrument called MOXIE. California-based company Masten Space Systems, meanwhile, is developing a rover that could use controlled blasts to harvest lunar ice that could be converted into drinking water and oxygen for future lunar bases. NASA may have recently postponed its plans to send humans to the moon by 2024, but the scientific community continued to deliver innovative new methods to aid in the survival of future lunar astronauts.

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