The Moon has no breathable oxygen – which obviously presents a hurdle for astronauts. There’s only so much we can take with us, so figuring out how to produce it there is crucial. Now, researchers from the European Space Agency (ESA) have created a prototype device that can make oxygen out of the most common thing on the Moon – dirt.
Previous studies have revealed that 40 to 45 percent of the weight of moondust – more officially known as lunar regolith – is actually oxygen. The problem, however, is that it isn’t in a breathable form – the oxygen is locked away inside oxide minerals.
But ESA researchers have managed to develop a sophisticated prototype oxygen plant that can extract the vital gas from a simulated version of the lunar regolith. The device works by mixing the moondust with calcium chloride salt. The scientists then heat the mixture up to 950° C (1,742° F) and run a current through it, releasing oxygen — a process called molten salt electrolysis.
Oxygen isn’t the only potentially useful product to be extracted from the regolith. Once that vital gas is removed, the leftover stuff contains a mix of several different metals, which could be useful to astronauts for building.
The novel technology works as a proof of concept, and with further refining of the process, a similar device could one day be sent to the Moon to help maintain a sustainable human presence there.