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As we look towards longer missions to the Moon, the shear amount of resources needed to survive becomes a much bigger question. Without space semi-trucks to haul life-giving resources to astronauts, can we utilize the Moon’s barren landscape to help us breathe?

Hosted By: Reid Reimers

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This episode is sponsored by Wren, a  website with a monthly subscription that helps fund projects to  combat the climate crisis.

Click the link in the description  to learn more about how you can make a monthly contribution to support projects  like rainforest protection programs. [♪ INTRO] It took years of work and  billions of dollars for NASA to put the first astronauts on the  Moon more than fifty years ago. After all that effort and  expense, they couldn’t stay long.

Neil and Buzz spent just a couple  of hours on the lunar surface. Later missions extended the stay  on the Moon to a couple of days. But, now, with new technology and  priorities, the next generation of astronauts are expecting to spend a heck  of a lot longer on their visits.

To do so, they’re going to need food to  eat, water to drink, and air to breathe. That’s a lot of material to ferry from Earth,  so scientists and engineers are exploring what resources they can leverage to help  astronauts live off the lunar land itself. One of the most promising ideas is that,  in the midst of the vacuum of space, the next era of Moonwalkers  could breathe the Moon itself.

Well, after a little processing, that is. The astronauts who land as part  of NASA’s upcoming Project Artemis will spend at least a week,  and perhaps more than a month, living at base camp and  exploring the lunar surface. China and Russia are thinking even bigger.

They imagine a lunar outpost that,  like the International Space Station, is permanently inhabited by the mid-2030s. Making these lunar settlements  a reality will require launching all the materials and equipment needed  to build and supply them from Earth. To reduce the burden as much as possible,  scientists and engineers are exploring in-situ resource utilization, the idea of  “living off the land” as much as possible.

It’s a new term for an ancient  idea: bringing only enough supplies to get where you’re going, and  then produce more once you arrive. Of course, the whole idea becomes a lot  trickier when you start exploring space. The lunar soil, which  scientists call lunar regolith, is a lot less inviting than farmland on Earth.

But it does contain a key  ingredient for life: oxygen. In fact, lunar regolith is, on  average, more than 40% oxygen. That’s a big deal, since it is rather  inconvenient to stop breathing while exploring.

All that oxygen is locked up in the form  of minerals, including silicon dioxide, aluminum oxide, calcium oxide,  magnesium oxide, and titanium dioxide. Altogether, those five minerals make up  ninety percent of typical lunar regolith, so if you grab a fistful of Moondust, you’re  gonna come up with a fistful of oxygen. Excavate just a cubic meter of lunar surface, and you’ve got more than half a ton of oxygen.

Of course, you can’t breathe  straight-up titanium dioxide, so the real challenge is separating  the oxygen atoms from everything else. To solve that problem, chemists have  been experimenting with rock mixtures tuned to exactly match samples  brought back by the Apollo astronauts. In one promising study,  published in 2019, researchers were able to extract the oxygen using a  surprisingly simple process: electrolysis.

It uses electricity to do a chemical reaction, like separating the oxygen from the regolith. But Moon rocks aren’t very conductive,  so the key was to add a material called an electrolyte to help the electricity flow. In this experiment, they used calcium chloride.

Then, the mixture is heated  to 950 degrees Celsius, which is hot enough to melt the calcium chloride, but not so hot that it melts the regolith. Once things were at the perfect  temperature, the researchers applied an electric current that started the process  of breaking the oxygen atoms free. After 15 hours, 75% of the  total oxygen had been extracted, about a third of which was in a  gaseous form suitable for breathing.

Would that be enough? It just might. For all our breathing throughout  the day, we actually consume a surprisingly small amount of oxygen.

NASA astronauts on board the  International Space Station consume an average of just  840 grams of oxygen per day. So, if electrolysis could free the  oxygen from the lunar regolith, they wouldn’t need a lot of material per  day to support a couple of astronauts. And that’s assuming that  none of the carbon dioxide the astronaut breathes out  is converted back to oxygen.

What’s more, the “leftovers” from the  electrolysis process wouldn’t just be wasted. The metal alloys left behind could be used as a construction material or as  part of another chemical reaction. Oxygen extraction seems so  promising that both NASA and the European Space Agency, or ESA, are planning missions to the Moon to test it out.

In October 2021, NASA signed an agreement with the Australian Space Agency to develop a  lunar rover for launch as early as 2026. ESA’s lander, named PROSPECT, will  pursue another promising idea: extracting oxygen from water trapped  in ice near the Moon’s south pole. It could launch as early as 2025.

These techniques, or ones like them,  will be key for any permanent habitation on other worlds, whether  that’s the Moon or even Mars. When you’re going on a trip, you can  bring everything you need with you. But when you’re going to stay, you’ve got  to learn to live off what’s around you.

And while scientists work to  explore the Moon and a future home, we can do our best to protect  the one we have, Earth, and today’s sponsor, WREN, can help with that. They’re a website with a monthly subscription that helps to fund projects  to combat the climate crisis. Wren searches around the  globe for promising projects, getting data on the ground to  track their impact over time.

Like community tree planting in  East Africa to sequester carbon and improve the quality of the soil. Over the long term we need  governments to fund these projects, but we can start by crowdfunding them now. And as a bonus, we’ve  partnered with Wren to protect an extra ten acres of rainforest  for the first 100 people who sign up using our link in the description!

And as always, thank you for  supporting SciShow Space. [♪ OUTRO]