British engineers who are perfecting a technique for transforming moondust into oxygen have made a breakthrough that could shape the future of space exploration.
Using specially designed pilot reactors, UK firm Metalysis has successfully extracted air from simulated moonrock, leaving behind kilos of powdered metal that could one day be used to build lunar habitats.
This is the first time the by-product has been produced in these quantities.
The demonstration could pave the way for an extra-terrestrial extraction plant for oxygen and manufacturing materials that would enable lunar exploration while avoiding the enormous cost of sending supplies from Earth.
The technology could even be used to develop a spacecraft refuelling station on the Moon.
Metalysis has already developed a mineral extraction process, which is currently used by industries on Earth to produce metals.
For the past year the company has been working with ESA to explore how this process could be used in a lunar setting, a project which forms part of wider agency preparations to support the establishment of a permanent and sustainable presence on Earth’s natural satellite.
Lunar regolith contains about 45% oxygen which is bound to metals such as iron and titanium.
Metalysis’ electrochemical process takes place in a chamber the size of a washing machine. Simulant regolith is submerged in a molten salt and a current is then passed through it. This triggers the extraction of the oxygen, which then migrates across the liquid salt to collect at an electrode, leaving behind a mixture of metal powders.