NASA Wants to Free Moon Soil Oxygen Using Carbothermal Reactors

Blue Origin too is working on ways to harness resources on the Moon 13 photos
Photo: Blue Origin
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The Artemis Moon exploration program is designed not only to support a human return to our planet's natural satellite, but also open the doors to a more constant presence there. That's why this effort is accompanied by a host of others, from energy generation to resource utilization, all of them meant to help advance the colonization of the Moon at a faster pace.
One key aspect of a human presence on the Moon is the way we're going to have access to resources. Whether we're talking about building materials for habitats or elements needed to support life, resources are both crucial for the success of lunar missions and colonies, and a major hurdle.

It is possible for humanity to send the required resources to the Moon, but that's hard to do, and incredibly expensive. That's why, at least when it comes to the elements we already know are there, ways to harvest and use them are being researched.

Take oxygen, for instance. We don't use it only to breathe, but also to run some of our equipment, and that will be the case up there as well. The Moon has plenty of oxygen, not floating freely in the atmosphere, but captured inside either regolith or ice.

The first challenge in using it is, thus, extraction. Several ways are currently being researched, but one of the most promising involves something called a carbothermal reactor.

The carbothermal reaction is the process of reducing substances by using heat and carbon. It's a technique used here on Earth for making steel or solar panels, for instance, and it seems it might have the interesting effect of releasing oxygen from lunar soil.

NASA announced as much this week. We learned of an experiment called Carbothermal Reduction Demonstration (CaRD) which took place at the Johnson Space Center and ended in the successful extraction of oxygen from lunar soil.

True, it was not exactly real lunar soil, but a simulant. It was placed inside a facility called Dirty Thermal Vacuum Chamber and was heated using a laser. A carbothermal reactor made by Sierra Space was used to melt the substance, which resulted in carbon monoxide being released. Then, says NASA, oxygen was successfully extracted.

We're not given exact details on how much oxygen was extracted from how much simulant, but the people behind the project say the technology has the potential to generate "several times its own weight in oxygen per year on the lunar surface."

This was the first time such an oxygen extraction had been performed in a vacuum. Although there's still a lot of work before claiming carbothermal reactors are the key to freeing lunar oxygen, NASA says it already has a "representational model and is ready to be tested in space." When that will happen is anyone's guess.
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Editor's note: Gallery shows various images and renderings of the Moon and human hardware.

About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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