In a groundbreaking step towards establishing a human presence on the Moon, NASA extracted oxygen from simulated lunar soil in a “dirty” chamber with similar conditions to the Moon’s environment.
During a recent test at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, scientists were able to produce oxygen from the soil in a vacuum environment for the first time, the space agency announced on Tuesday.
Soil on the Moon contains compounds that could potentially be used to produce oxygen with the help of radiation from the Sun. In order to test that out, a team of scientists from NASA’s Carbothermal Reduction Demonstration (CaRD) created fine-grained soil to simulate the material covering the Moon’s surface.
Using a high-powered laser that simulated heat from a solar energy concentrator (which is similar to a magnifying lens), the team then melted the lunar soil simulant, NASA explained. After the soil was heated, the scientists detected carbon monoxide using the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo), a device that was designed to help scientists look for water on the Moon.
The recent test was conducted inside a special 15-foot wide spherical chamber known as the Dirty Thermal Vacuum Chamber, which recreated conditions similar to those found on the Moon. Said Aaron Paz, NASA senior engineer and CaRD project manager: “This technology has the potential to produce several times its own weight in oxygen per year on the lunar surface, which will enable a sustained human presence and lunar economy.”
The process of heating the soil and extracting the oxygen took place inside a carbothermal reactor, a device that uses high temperatures to produce carbon monoxide or dioxide on Earth to create items like solar panels and steel, according to NASA. The test was the first time the reactor was used inside the Moon-like chamber, providing possible proof that it can in fact operate in the lunar environment.
“To apply this process to oxygen production on the Moon, a carbothermal reactor needs to be able to hold pressure to keep gases from escaping to space, while still allowing lunar material to travel in and out of the reaction zone,” NASA wrote in its statement.
Creating oxygen on the Moon could help support lunar habitats for future astronauts as NASA and other space agencies strive to establish a sustainable presence on and around the surface of Earth’s satellite.
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