Pipelines Built by Robots on the Moon Will Carry Local Oxygen for Astronaut Use

2022 was the year when humanity started to dream big again, after the U.S. launched the inaugural Artemis mission to the Moon. Although uncrewed, the flight proved the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule can safely take humans up there and back. And it also opened the doors to all those other wonderful things Artemis promises for the future.
Concept of Moon oxygen pipeline 10 photos
Photo: NASA/Peter Curreri/Lunar Resources
Thales-led group working on oxygen-extraction tech for the MoonThales-led group working on oxygen-extraction tech for the MoonThales-led group working on oxygen-extraction tech for the MoonThales-led group working on oxygen-extraction tech for the MoonEuropean Large Logistic LanderLunar base and operations renderingEarth seen from the MoonOxygen and metal from lunar regolithNASA Artemis mission details
Among them dreams is that of a constant human presence on the surface of Earth’s satellite, but also in orbit around it. It’s a difficult concept to grasp at the moment, but NASA & Co are really planning for this, and have set wheels in motion that are both too expensive and too hard to stop, short of delivering the promised result.

The entire idea of a constant presence on the lunar surface (and later elsewhere in this solar system) relies on something called in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). In a nutshell, that would be the ability to harness whatever resources are available on location, rather than having them transported from all the way here on Earth.

Believe it or not, the Moon has both oxygen and water. Unlike here on our planet, they are not freely present in an atmosphere and elsewhere, but are captured in regolith (oxygen) and ice (water). Of course, NASA and others have set their sights on them, and are working on technologies that could harvest both rapidly and effectively. Some of these technologies are very close to completion and will be tested on the Moon as soon as next year, possibly yielding results for Artemis astronauts as soon as 2028.

While most scientists and the public were focused on these technologies, a Lunar Resources man named Peter Curreri thought of something else entirely. Since Lunar Resources is in the business of coming up with off-Earth resource extraction and manufacturing capabilities, he started wondering how will all that lunar oxygen and water be transported from place to place as needed? The answer is just as simple as it is here on Earth: use pipelines.

Current plans call for lunar oxygen, for instance, to be bottled in compressed gas tanks or, alternatively, liquified and then stored. For that to happen, the stuff has to be extracted, then loaded and transported on rovers to facilities that can compress and liquefy it, all in a process that according to Curreri “is more energy intensive than the extraction process” itself, thus highly ineffective.

The man’s pipeline idea removes the rovers from the equation. It calls for a gaseous oxygen pipeline to be built at the Moon’s South Pole and help transporting the extracted oxygen to various facilities.

The idea, the first of its kind, is still in its early stages, but has already captured NASA’s attention, which handed Curreri one of the 14 Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grants earlier this month.

The researcher will use the grant (whose value was not disclosed) to come up with several system architectures for the pipeline, but also a roadmap detailing how fast the tech could be implemented.

He will focus on developing the plans for a pipeline 5 km (3.1 miles) long which should be constructed on the Moon using aluminum (present as a constituent of a mineral called anorthite), iron and magnesium. Robots will be tasked with putting it together, and when ready it should have a flow rate of about 2 kg of oxygen per hour.

This being an incipient project, there’s no way of telling if it will actually become a reality. Then again, all great space exploration ideas have to start somewhere, so why not with a NIAC grant?
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Editor's note: Gallery shows various Moon ISRU ideas.

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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