"This is a big step for developing the architecture to build sustainable human bases on other planets."
Researchers at NASA's Johnson Space Center have successfully extracted oxygen from simulated lunar soil.
According to the agency, it's the first time such an extraction was completed inside a vacuum environment like the actual Moon.
It's an exciting proof of concept scientifically, but also economically. Why? Because it could potentially provide future astronauts with the capability to harvest in-situ resources once they land on the Moon and turn them into breathable oxygen — and even rocket fuel for the way home.
In a test, the team recreated conditions similar to those found on the Moon inside a 15-foot chamber called the Dirty Thermal Vacuum Chamber.
By heating a simulated soil sample using a high-powered laser inside a carbothermal reactor, the team successfully extracted oxygen from the soil.
Similar carbothermal reduction reactions have already been used for decades to produce solar panels and steel, NASA notes.
"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," said Aaron Paz, a NASA senior engineer and Carbothermal Reduction Demonstration (CaRD) project manager at the Johnson Space Center, in a statement.
The scientists say they've developed a fully functional prototype that's ready to be put to the ultimate test in space.
"Our team proved the CaRD reactor would survive the lunar surface and successfully extract oxygen," said Anastasia Ford, a NASA engineer and CaRD test director. "This is a big step for developing the architecture to build sustainable human bases on other planets."
But it won't be easy. Once on the Moon, the reactor will have to be able to maintain high levels of pressure while also allowing lunar soil to get in and out of the reaction zone.
Getting heavy equipment to the Moon is also a significant challenge. At the earliest, the agency is hoping to land astronauts on the surface of the Moon during the upcoming Artemis 3 mission before the end of the decade.
More on oxygen extraction: Scientists Use Actual Lunar Soil Sample to Create Rocket Fuel