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Soon an oxygen machine on the moon

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The Belgian company Space Applications Services is developing a technology to produce oxygen on the moon. The launch of a prototype is scheduled for 2025 as part of an ESA demonstration mission.

You have not missed it: the United States, but also China and Russia are planning to settle permanently on the Moon over the next few years. Initially, the various operating agencies will be able to transport equipment and resources from Earth. However, in the longer term, the transport costs inherent in these supplies will be far too high. This is why means are currently being developed to try to rely on local resources.

The extraction of oxygen in particular, will be essential for future human settlements on the Moon, as on Mars.

Oxygen could indeed be combined with other gases to produce breathable air. It could also be used to develop rocket fuel (liquid oxygen). Allowing spacecraft to “refuel” directly on the moon with local resources, such as oxygen, will undoubtedly play a key role in the exploration of the solar system over the coming decades.

Extract oxygen from the lunar regolith

With this in mind, the European Space Agency (ESA) recently awarded contracts to several companies. The latter will have to develop a technology capable of extracting oxygen directly from moon dust. The society Space applications services, in Belgium, is one of them.

To do this, the company’s engineers are developing an experimental structure based on the FFC Cambridge process, an electrochemical method of producing titanium from titanium oxide by electrolysis in molten calcium salts developed at the end of the years. 1990.

In the lunar environment, the technique is will focus on regolith, composed of approximately 45% oxygen. If all goes as planned, a first prototype will normally be sent to the Moon in 2025 as part of a demonstration mission.

Note that eventually, the metal alloys left after oxygen extraction, largely made up of iron, aluminum and silicon, will not be wasted. They could indeed be used to manufacture components for a lunar base thanks, for example, to 3D printing.

Untreated simulated lunar regolith on the left compared to the same regolith after oxygen extraction with the FFC Cambridge method. Credit: ESA

Besides the FFC Cambridge method, Space Applications Services is also focusing on another mining technique involving ilmenite, a titanium-rich ore found in certain areas of the moon. The principle is to cook the regolith in a closed container with hydrogen gas. In the presence of heat, the oxygen in ilmenite then reacts with hydrogen to form water vapor, which can then be divided into oxygen and hydrogen.


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