While SpaceX, NASA and others have lofty ambitions to send people to Mars, an inhospitable environment, some believe we should focus on starting a colony on a closer inhospitable environment first – the moon. The European Space Agency have created a power plant that can sustain humans’ long term on the moon – it creates rocket fuel and breathable air.
According to the ESA, this new plant converts moondust (currently recreated moondust, of course), into oxygen that could be used for air and fuel. This new technique unlocks the oxygen in regolith, the layer of unconsolidated solid material covering the bedrock of a planet – or moon, in this case – using molten salt electrolysis that superheats the dust. It then migrates the oxygen along the salt until it’s collected in a specially built anode.
This method has previously existed but is used for metal and alloy production at the moment. The European Space Agency approach was tweaked from the prior method to ensure available oxygen was captured.
This process can produce the fuel and air needed to setup a permanent habitat on the moon, with plentiful of the resource all around. The experiment could be required to ascertain the viability of a Mars mission, where the explorers will be without any help from Earth.
At this point the plant simply vents out the oxygen rather than storing it, which will need to be addressed before it becomes a practical solution. The other by-products it produces also needs to be studied further in order to understand how useful they can be in such an environment, as we’ll need to recycle and reuse almost everything we create or discard.
While it will still be some time before this is tested on the moon, it is an important step to mankind becoming multi-planetary, or at least, ‘not of Earth.’