European Space Agency opens a plant to extract oxygen from MOONDUST that could allow future astronauts to breathe and make rocket fuel on the lunar surface

  • Plant in the Netherlands uses electrolysis to extract oxygen from moondust   
  • Prototype also converts dust from the lunar surface into usable metal alloys  
  • Is hoped a self-sustaining plant will eventually be built on the moon’s surface  
  • The oxygen can be stored and used for breathing or for making rocket fuel  

The European Space Agency (ESA) has opened is plant in the Netherlands specifically designed to extract oxygen from moondust.  

Making oxygen in space for long-duration exploration is an essential step which would allow astronauts to manufacture their own breathable air and also produce rocket fuel. 

The Dutch plant places the moondust in molten calcium chloride at 950°C and runs an electric current through the liquid.

This extracts the oxygen trapped within the material and also converts the dust into usable metal alloys. 

Researchers hope to this prototype will lay the foundations for one day building a self-sustained base on the moon. 

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Lunar regolith (pictured left, a simulated material before the experiment) is made up of 40–45 per cent oxygen by weight, its single most abundant element. After it has been processed in the experiment (right) it is converted into a usable metal alloys

The Dutch plant places the moondust in molten calcium chloride at 950°C and runs an electric current through the liquid. This extracts the oxygen trapped within the material and also converts the dust into usable metal alloys (pictured)

ESA has opened its prototype plant in the Netherlands to extract oxygen from moondust. It hopes to one day make a elf-sustaining plant for the moon to provide a constant source of oxygen for colonisation missions

Analysis of real space rocks reveals lunar regolith is made up of 40–45 per cent oxygen by weight, its single most abundant element. 

But this oxygen is tightly bound to other elements in the form of minerals or glass.

A form of electrolysis — the passing of an electrical current through a liquid — helps free the oxygen in the form of a gas and traps it for later use.  

The silent process is currently performed on fake moondust designed to replicate the properties of the lunar surface. 

Oxygen is currently vented out as steam, but future upgrades will see storage facilities added to the prototype. 

The prototype was built in the Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory of the European Space Research and Technology Centre, ESTEC, based in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. 

‘Having our own facility allows us to focus on oxygen production, measuring it with a mass spectrometer as it is extracted from the regolith simulant,’ said Beth Lomax of the University of Glasgow.   

‘Being able to acquire oxygen from resources found on the Moon would obviously be hugely useful for future lunar settlers, both for breathing and in the local production of rocket fuel.’

The method for releasing the oxygen was initially created by a commercial firm in the UK, called Metalysis, which focuses on turning dust into metal alloys for manufacturing. 

For Metalysis, the gas that was produced was an unwanted byproduct. 

However, Ms Lomax, who worked at Metalysis before working at the Dutch plant, has focused her PhD thesis on adapting the method for space exploration. 

Pictured: Microscopic image of moondust simulant. A form of electrolysis — the passing of an electrical current through a liquid — helps free the oxygen trapped within and it can then be trapped and stored for later use

The prototype was built in the Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory of the European Space Research and Technology Centre, ESTEC, based in Noordwijk, the Netherlands (pictured)

Pictured: Moondust simulant undergoing oxygen extraction. The Dutch plant places the moondust in molten calcium chloride at 950°C and ru

‘At Metalysis, oxygen produced by the process is an unwanted by-product and is instead released as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, which means the reactors are not designed to withstand oxygen gas itself,’ she said. 

‘So we had to redesign the ESTEC version to be able to have the oxygen available to measure. The lab team was very helpful in getting it installed and operating safely.’

Researchers hope the success of this initial prototype will allow them to explore the two avenues of research equally, with the ultimate goal of building a ‘pilot plant’ that could operate sustainably on the Moon.

‘ESA and NASA are heading back to the Moon with crewed missions, this time with a view towards staying,’ says Tommaso Ghidini, Head of ESA’s Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division.

‘Accordingly we’re shifting our engineering approach to a systematic use of lunar resources in-situ.

‘We are working with our colleagues in the Human and Robotics Exploration Directorate, European industry and academia to provide top class scientific approaches and key enabling technologies like this one, towards a sustained human presence on the Moon and maybe one day Mars.’

HUMANS COULD BE BORN ON THE MOON ‘IN A FEW DECADES’

Children will be born on the moon ‘in a few decades’, with whole families joining Europe’s lunar colony by 2050, a top space scientist has claimed.

Professor Bernard Foing, ambassador of the European Space Agency-driven ‘Moon Village’ scheme, made the comments at a conference in 2017.

He said that by 2030, there could be an initial lunar settlement of six to 10 pioneers – scientists, technicians and engineers – which could grow to 100 by 2040.

‘In 2050, you could have a thousand and then… naturally you could envisage to have family’ joining crews there, he told AFP. 

Speaking at the European Planetary Science Congress in Riga, Latvia, Professor Foing explained how humanity’s moon colonies could quickly expand.

He likened human expansion on the moon to the growth of the railways, when villages grew around train stations, followed by businesses.

Potential moon resources include basalt, a volcanic rock that could be used as a raw material for 3D-printing satellites.

These could be deployed from the moon at a fraction of the cost of a launch from high-gravity Earth.

The moon also houses helium-3, a rare isotope on our planet, that could theoretically be used to generate cleaner, safer nuclear energy for Earth.

One of the main targets for moon colonies is water, locked up in ice on the moon’s poles.

Water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen, two gases which explode when mixed – providing rocket fuel.

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