This decade, Earth will be sending its finest representatives to the Moon, a return to the planet’s natural satellite meant not just as a visit, but as colonization. Space stations and surface bases are planned for the mid-term future, meant to transform the rock into a staging area for even greater leaps.
Leaps that will probably be impossible to make without something called in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU. That essentially means finding ways of using materials available at the destination for the next steps of space exploration, rather than having them all sent up from Earth.
As far as we know, all of the places of interest in our solar system have most of the materials we need right there. The trick is coming up with the technology that would allow us to harness them all.
But wait, is there oxygen on Mars?
Of course, loads of it. By analyzing the samples brought back from the Moon by previous missions, we now know the lunar regolith is made up of 40 to 45 percent oxygen by weight, “its single most abundant element” according to ESA.
The problem is the element is not free, and not even easily obtainable. Bound up as oxides in the form of minerals or glass, it would require some fancy piece of equipment to set it free.
And this is where the four companies come in. ESA asked them all to create a demonstrator – a hardware that could be scaled into a fully blown oxygen manufacturing facility on the Moon.
The systems included in the hardware should allow it to extract 50-100 grams of oxygen over a period of ten Earth days. Separately, it should also have the means to measure oxygen and metals production, and prove that more than 70 percent of the oxygen in a lunar rock can extracted.
If it works, the system should open the door for oxygen production on the Moon, significantly reducing the cost and size of subsequent missions to be launched to the satellite. It could be used for anything from allowing astronauts there to breathe, to acting as propellant for spacecraft.
ESA says it will select a winner for the competition next month. Once that is out of the way, the respective company will be tasked with making a detailed design that would eventually mature into an actual payload to be sent to the Moon.
The mission, probably using the EL3, is expected to be approved by the ESA higher-ups over the course of next year. And it should make one thing clear: not all astronauts will go up there to be explorers - some will have to be miners.