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Competing companies developing payload to make air from moondust

on 18 August 2021

ESA is challenging companies in its Member States to design a compact plant to demonstrate the manufacture of oxygen on the Moon. Industrial teams are competing this summer to propose and prove designs through testing, with the winner set to be declared in September.

This small piece of technology will evaluate the prospect of building larger plants to produce propellant for spacecraft, air for astronauts and metallic raw materials for equipment.

ESA’s Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration selected Airbus Defence and Space in Germany, OHB in Italy, Space Applications in Belgium and Thales Alenia Space in the UK as leaders of the competing teams during a summer-long study to develop payload concepts meeting stringent performance requirements.

The underlying concept has already been proven. Samples returned from the lunar surface confirm that lunar regolith is made up of 40–45% percent oxygen by weight, its single most abundant element. The difficulty is that this oxygen is bound up chemically as oxides in the form of minerals or glass, so is unavailable for immediate use.

ESA has set strict targets for the payload, proposed to be flown on a future lunar lander:

  • Retrieve samples and extract 50-100g of oxygen
  • Show that more than 70% of the available oxygen in a lunar rock sample can be extracted
  • Perform precision measurements of oxygen and metals production
  • Do it all before the Sun goes down on the lunar surface (< 10 Earth days).

Having started work in June, the companies have had just three months to come up with working designs.

More details here.

Image credit: Beth Lomax - University of Glasgow