One of the many obstacles to establishing a base on the moon is determining how to supply oxygen to lunar residents. But a team of scientists have found a way to extract oxygen from the moon's greatest resource — rocks.
The absence of oxygen-bearing atmosphere on the moon has been a great challenge to the feasibility of establishing a lunar base. Ferrying stored oxygen to such a base is feasible — but a costly proposition, at up to $100 per ton. Thus, the space agencies have been looking for ways to extract oxygen from the moon's own surface. In 2005, NASA established a $250,000 prize for a feasible, scalable method of oxygen extraction, but even with the prize money raised to a million dollars last year, no one has succeeded. Until now.
A team of researchers at the University of Cambridge has built a reactor that strips oxygen from moon rocks, in much the same way metal is extracted from terrestrial rocks. Their machine is able to extract nearly 100 percent of oxygen, yielding one ton of oxygen for every three tons of moon rocks.
The best part of the process is the expense of operation. The reactor could be shipped disassembled, and built on the moon, and it uses roughly the same amount of energy as a home water heater, energy which could be supplied by solar panels or a nuclear reactor placed in the base. The European Space Agency is now working with the team to create a larger, remotely operable prototype, and bring us one step close to a lunar base.