Last year, an instrument from NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars made oxygen from the Red Planet’s carbon dioxide atmosphere.
Conducted by Moxie as part of the In-situ Oxygen Resource Utilization Experiment on Mars, this strategy has certainly raised hopes for the survival of extraterrestrials. Future human missions could send versions of Moxie to Mars instead of bringing oxygen from Earth to sustain them.
But, Moxie is powered by a nuclear battery on board.
Yingfang Yao, a materials scientist at Nanjing University, said: “In the near future, we will see the crewed spacecraft industry develop rapidly.
And, long-term survival on the moon would be a turning point in manned deep space exploration.
One giant leap..
“Like the age of sailing in the 1600s, when hundreds of ships headed to the sea, we will enter the age of space. “However, large-scale exploration of extraterrestrial worlds require us to think of ways to reduce our payloads, relying as little as possible on supplies from Earth and using extraterrestrial resources instead.” He continued.
Yao and Zhigang Zou, another materials scientist at Nanjing University, are exploring whether lunar resources can be used to aid human exploration of the moon or beyond.
They published a study in the journal Joule, reporting that the lunar soil contains active compounds that can convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and fuel.
What does the moon have in store for us?
There is no air to breathe on the moon. However, several elements such as argon40, helium-4, oxygen, methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide & carbon dioxide have been detected in the lunar atmosphere.
While ground-based spectrometers detected sodium & potassium, the Lunar Prospector orbiter detected radioactive isotopes of radon & polonium. In 2012, lunar reconnaissance orbiters discovered helium.
Meanwhile, the lunar regolith has been formed by the constant impact of meteorites that have pulverized the underlying cohesive rock. All material sampled from lunar cores has provided evidence that residing at the surface.
The layers of regolith consist of meteorites, solar particles & cosmic rays bombardment. And the exposed surface layers contain implanted solar material, such as rare gases & elements carried by the sun in the solar wind.
Oxygen is the most abundant chemical element in the moon’s rocks.
Lunar in-situ resource utilization, an excellent opportunity to support crewed missions
Here, Yao & Zou hope to develop a system that uses the moon’s most abundant resources: the lunar soil & solar radiation.
Their team analyzed lunar soil brought back by China’s Chang’e 5 spacecraft and found that the sample contained compounds such as those rich in iron & titanium that could act as a catalyst to generate produce desired products such as oxygen using sunlight & carbon dioxide.
Recommended strategy? “Extraterrestrial photosynthesis”.
The system will use lunar soil to electrolyze water extracted from the moon and in-to astronauts’ breathing exhaust into oxygen & hydrogen powered by sunlight. The carbon dioxide exhaled by the inhabitants of the moon will also be collected and combined with hydrogen from the electrolysis of water during hydrogenation process catalyzed by lunar soil.
This process produces hydrocarbons such as methane that can be used as fuel.
Extraterrestrial survival is close
According to the researchers, this strategy uses not external energy but sunlight to produce water, oxygen & the desired fuel products that could sustain life on the moon.
The team is currently looking for opportunities to test this system in space, possibly with future lunar crews mission with China.
“We use in-site environmental resources to minimize rocket payloads, and our strategy provides a scenario for an affordable & sustainable extraterrestrial living environment,” said Yao. Yao said.
Although the catalytic efficiency of lunar soil is lower than those available on Earth, the team is testing different methods to improve the design, such as melting lunar soil into a materials with high entropy nanostructures which is a better catalysts, says Yao.
Lunar soil or components extracted from lunar soil can essentially reduce the load & cost of spacecraft, thereby improving the feasibility & sustainability for human survival with high economic efficiency, offering great hope for future manned missions.”