Oxygen is one of the most important resources in space exploration. Not only is it an important part of rocket fuel, but astronauts must also breathe anywhere outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The availability of this rich resource is not a problem-it can be widely used throughout the solar system. A particularly common place is lunar heavy stones, which form a thin layer of material on the surface of the moon. The difficulty comes from a quirk of oxygen-it combines with almost everything.
About 45% of the weight of hard rock is oxygen, but it is bound to materials such as iron and titanium. In order to simultaneously use oxygen and the material bound to it, they must be separated. A British company, with the support of the European Space Agency, has begun testing a technology to determine its potential effectiveness on the moon.
A company called Metalysis has made a metal machine capable of isolating oxygen from the metal in the bonding configuration. The company took a new step to extract oxygen and metals from simulated lunar heavy rocks, which are the best substitutes for actual soil on the moon on Earth.
The experiment works well, although some fine-tuning is needed to increase the amount of oxygen released. This method immerses oxygen-containing substances in a molten salt bath, and then causes electric current to flow through the combined salt and heavy stone. The electric charge breaks the bond between oxygen and the metal that maintains its state in the form of an oxide, and then they freely migrate and collect on the charged electrode. Then leave the mixed metal powder.
If used properly, this metal can be used in material deposition systems (such as 3D printing), but so far, it has placed shopping carts in front of horses. The experiments conducted by Metalysis took place in a specialized room the size of a washing machine, which consumes a lot of electricity and mainly focuses on metal extraction. If the process is to be used effectively in space, all three characteristics must be modified.
The chamber itself must be shrunk in order to properly cooperate with other space-constrained equipment. Due to the severe shortage of energy available on the moon, the demand for electricity will have to fall. And because oxygen is more valuable than metal on the moon, the process must be adjusted with different reactants to extract the maximum amount of oxygen from the material.
However, Metalysis and ESA engineers still need some time before they need their processes on the moon. NASA’s current ambitious Artemis plan is to return a person to the moon within four years. If there is a system that can produce rocket fuel and breathable gas for them on arrival, it will be an important step in ensuring future exploration missions from the lunar surface.
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Protagonist Image Credit: ESA