NASA scientists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston have successfully extracted oxygen from simulated lunar soil for the first time in a vacuum environment. This test marks a significant step towards establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon as part of the Artemis mission.
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One of the primary objectives of the Artemis mission is to enable a long-term presence on the lunar surface. Essential to this vision is the ability to extract resources, such as oxygen, from the Moon’s surface. Oxygen is vital not just for breathing but also as a propellant for transportation, allowing astronauts to stay longer and travel further on the Moon.
The test was carried out by NASA’s Carbothermal Reduction Demonstration (CaRD) team in the Dirty Thermal Vacuum room, which simulates lunar conditions. They melted a lunar soil simulant inside a carbothermal reactor, which was created by Sierra Space Corp. of Broomfield, Colorado. The heating and oxygen extraction process took place inside the carbothermal reactor, which generated carbon monoxide or dioxide at high temperatures.
Once the soil was heated, the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) detected carbon monoxide. A similar device will be used on two upcoming exploration missions to the Moon’s South Pole – the Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment-1 in 2023, which will help search for water, and NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) in November 2024, which will explore Mons Mouton.
“This technology has the potential to produce several times its own weight in oxygen per year on the lunar surface, which will enable a sustained human presence and lunar economy,” said Aaron Paz, NASA senior engineer and CaRD project manager at Johnson.
The CaRD test’s reactor operation in a vacuum environment replicated lunar surface conditions, which is crucial for the technology’s application to produce oxygen on the Moon. The successful test raised the reactor’s technical readiness level to six, indicating that the technology is now prepared for space testing.
“This is a big step for developing the architecture to build sustainable human bases on other planets,” said Anastasia Ford, NASA engineer and CaRD test director at Johnson. The Game Changing Development program sponsored the test to build the technology necessary to extract oxygen from lunar soil.
NASA’s successful extraction of oxygen from simulated lunar soil in a vacuum environment represents a significant breakthrough in the quest for a sustainable human presence on the Moon. The ability to extract and use resources in a lunar environment is essential to achieving the goals of the Artemis mission.