The European Space Agency (ESA) has selected the industrial team that will design and build the first experimental payload to extract oxygen from the surface of the Moon.
ESA’s Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration selected the team – led by Thales Alenia Space in the UK – following a competition for the best oxygen extraction device, evaluating three rival designs. The team also included AVS, Metalysis, Open University, and Redwire Space Europe.
As part of the project, the selected team will develop a small piece of equipment that will evaluate the prospect of building larger lunar plants to extract propellant for spacecraft and breathable air for astronauts – as well as metallic raw materials for equipment. The design will be capable of extracting 50-100 grams of oxygen from the lunar regolith, which should make up at least 70% of the total oxygen in the rock. At the same time, it would also deliver precision measurements of performance and gas concentrations.
The ESA oxygen extraction device would have to collect all oxygen within a 10 day period – running on the solar power available within a single fortnight-long lunar day, before the coming of the pitch-black, freezing lunar night.
“The payload needs to be compact, low power, and able to fly on a range of potential lunar landers, including ESA’s own European Large Logistics Lander, EL3,” said David Binns, Systems Engineer from ESA’s state-of-the-art Concurrent Design Facility (CDF). “Being able to extract oxygen from moonrock, along with useable metals, will be a game-changer for lunar exploration, allowing the international explorers set to return to the Moon to ‘live off the land’ without being dependent on long and expensive terrestrial supply lines.”
Once the technology is proven using this initial payload, a full-scale model will be sent to the Moon aboard the ESA’s logistics lander in the early part of the following decade.
The concept of producing oxygen and metals from lunar regolith has already been tested in laboratories and has proven its effectiveness. The samples returned from the lunar surface confirm that lunar regolith is made up of 40-45% percent oxygen by weight, its single most abundant element. The difficulty lies in that this oxygen is chemically bound as oxides in the form of minerals or glass and therefore not available for immediate use. A prototype was built in the laboratory to extract it, which is based on electrolysis to separate simulated lunar regolith into metals and oxygen, key basic resources for long-term sustainable space missions.