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By A.J. Roan
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ESA selects team to mine oxygen on Moon

Winning team will use proven research to develop "air plants" Metal Tech News – March 16, 2022


Last updated 3/15/2022 at 1:35pm

NASA ESA European Space Agency oxygen mining space Moon air plant Thales Alenia

European Space Agency

The left image shows a pile of simulated lunar soil, while the right is the same pile after essentially all the oxygen has been extracted from it, leaving a mixture of metal alloys.

Following a competition launched by the European Space Agency, it has selected Thales Alenia Space to design and build the first experimental payload to mine oxygen from the surface of the Moon.

Tasked with producing a small piece of equipment that will evaluate the prospect of building larger lunar plants to extract propellant for spacecraft and breathable air for astronauts – as well as metallic raw materials for equipment – the Franco-Italian aerospace manufacturer, was selected following a detailed study last year.

ESA's Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration selected the Thales-led team of AVS, Metalysis, Open University and Redwire Space Europe after evaluating three rival designs. The process followed a new approach to selecting system concepts.

"Employing a challenge approach let us evaluate the competing payload concepts on a precise, side-by-side basis," said David Binns, systems engineer from ESA's state-of-the-art Concurrent Design Facility. "Now we're looking forward to working with the winning consortium to make their design a practical reality."

The compact payload will need to extract 50-100 grams of oxygen from lunar regolith – targeting 70% extraction of all available oxygen within the sample – while delivering precision measurements of performance and gas concentrations.

And it will have to do all of this in a hurry, within a 10-day period – running on the solar power available within a single fortnight-long lunar day, before the coming of the pitch-black, freezing lunar night.

"The payload needs to be compact, low power and able to fly on a range of potential lunar landers, including ESA's own European Large Logistics Lander, EL3," added Binns. "Being able to extract oxygen from moonrock, along with usable metals, will be a game changer for lunar exploration, allowing the international explorers set to return to the Moon to 'live off the land' without being dependent on long and expensive terrestrial supply lines."

Giorgio Magisrati, Studies and Technologies Team Leader at ESA's ExPeRT (Exploration Preparation, Research and Technology) initiative, added, "the time is right to begin work on realising this In-Situ Resource Utilisation demonstrator, the first step in our larger ISRU implementation strategy. Once the technology is proven using this initial payload, our approach will culminate in a full-scale ISRU plant in place on the Moon in the early part of the following decade."

The underlying concept has already been proven, with samples returned from the Moon containing up to 45% oxygen by weight and being its single most abundant element.

AVS Metalysis Open University Redwire Space EL3 Large Logistics Lander colony

European Space Agency

A 3D rendering of NASA's Artemis Lunar Base. A colony established on the Moon will bring with it technologies born in the oil and mining industries, with the ESA and Russia's Roscosmos being central to the effort to land a robotic drilling system to extract oxygen and water from frozen lunar soil.

"This oxygen is an extremely valuable resource, but it is chemically bound in the material as oxides in the form of minerals or glass, and is therefore unavailable for immediate use," explained researcher Beth Lomax of the University of Glasgow, whose PhD work is being supported through ESA's Networking and Partnering Initiative to harness advanced academic research for space applications. "This research provides a proof-of-concept that we can extract and utilise all the oxygen from lunar regolith, leaving a potentially useful metallic by-product."

To expand on this proof-of-concept, a prototype oxygen plant has been set up in the European Space Research and Technology Centre's Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory.

This plant employs an electrolysis-based process to separate simulated lunar regolith into metals and oxygen, both critical resources for long-term sustainable space missions.

Although the prototypes and theoretical work have been developed, it may still be several years, if not decades, before "air plants" begin to be built on the Moon. However, the prospects look very promising indeed.


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