When astronauts return to the moon in the next decade, they will do more with dust than leave footprints in it.
A British company won a contract with the European Space Agency to develop a technology that turns dust and rocks on the moon into oxygen, leaving aluminum, iron and other metal powders available to construction workers. on the moon.
If the process can work well enough, it will pave the way for lunar mining facilities to generate oxygen and precious materials on the surface, rather than having to transport them into space at hefty costs. .
“Anything you bring from Earth to the moon is an extra weight you don̵7;t want to carry around, so if you could make these materials in place,” said Ian Mellor, manager, manager of the company. That will save you a lot of time, effort and money. director of Metallysis, based in Sheffield.
The analysis of rocks brought from the moon shows that oxygen makes up about 45% of the weight of matter. The rest are mainly iron, aluminum and silicon. In research published this year, scientists at Metallysis and the University of Glasgow discovered that they were able to extract 96% of oxygen from simulated lunar soil, leaving useful metal alloy powders.
Nasa and other space agencies are in advanced preparations to return to the moon, this time to establish a permanent base on the moon, also known as the “moon village”, where the The country will operate alongside private companies on key technologies such as life support, habitat construction, energy production and food and raw materials production.
The Esa contract will fund Metallysis for 9 months to complete the electrochemical process that releases oxygen from lunar dust and rock by sending an electric current through the material. This process is already used on Earth, but oxygen is released as an unwanted byproduct of the mining process. To make it work for lunar explorers, oxygen had to be captured and stored.
Under the contract, the company will try to increase the productivity and purity of the oxygen and metals from the rock while reducing the amount of energy the process consumes. 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 combine with other gases to create breathable air, but it is also a key component of rocket propellant that can be produced on the moon and used. to refuel spacecraft to fly into deep space.
“If you want to go further in space, it’s a gas station on the moon, to go deeper,” Mellor said.
Mark Symes, who works on processes at the University of Glasgow, said the lunar rock represents “an enormous potential source of oxygen” to assist humans in exploring Earth’s satellites and the wider solar system. .
“Oxygen is not only useful for the breathing of astronauts, but also as an oxidant in rocket propulsion systems,” he said. “There is no free oxygen on the moon, so the astronauts would have to carry all their oxygen to the moon, to support life and allow their return journey, and this adds to that. considerable weight and thus the cost of launching the rocket is bound for the moon. “
“In the future, if we want to travel extensively in space and establish bases on the moon and stars,” said Sue Horne, head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency. Fire, then we will need to make or find the necessary stuff. for life support: food, water and well-ventilated air. “
For over four decades, human space exploration has been limited to the international space station, an orbiting outpost about 220 miles above Earth. The focus in the coming years will be the construction of a new station in orbit around the moon, which will act as a stop for humans to establish a presence on the lunar surface and potentially serve as a base. from there to be ejected from Mars.
The Lunar Gateway program has set itself an ambitious goal of bringing humans back to the moon as early as 2024, with the crew being transported aboard Nasa’s Orion spacecraft. The missile is expected to make its first drone flight next year.
Esa supplied the propulsion and engine units for the first Orion flight and agreed to a contract to build the main crew module for the Moon station.