NASA is taking steps to prepare for future long-term occupation on the Moon by seeking input from the lunar and scientific communities on ways to convert lunar soil and other naturally-occurring compounds into oxygen.
The nation’s leading space organization made an announcement Monday asking for input on In-situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) technologies, which in this case means using materials found on the moon, the vast majority of which are moon dust, to produce fuel, oxygen, water and other resources human beings might use or consume. These processes may one day make it possible for human beings to enjoy a sustainable presence on the moon or other planets without the need to shuttle resources to and from Earth.
NASA issued a Request for Information (RFI) for ISRU technologies which essentially allows them to start officially gathering information from outside parties for their future Lunar Infrastructure Foundational Technologies demonstration, also known as LIFT-1. LIFT-1 can be described as the foundation for the next phase of American lunar occupation, NASA’s officially designated program to put American boots back on the moon for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in December of 1972.
“Additional LIFT-1 objectives may include demonstrating new landing technologies, surface operations, and scalable power generation in the Moon’s South Pole region,” a NASA press release said. “With the RFI, NASA is asking for input from the lunar community to inform an integrated approach inclusive of launch, landing, and demonstration of surface infrastructure technologies as part of a subscale ISRU demonstration.”
One of the many issues standing in the way of human occupation on the Moon or anywhere else beyond Earth is that it’s very difficult, expensive and time consuming to bring enough resources for everybody. Launching a rocket ship from Earth costs multiple millions of dollars no matter how you slice it and every pound on board makes it monumentally more expensive. As such, long term space occupation isn’t really practical or feasible without ISRU technology.
NASA leadership described ISRU technology development as a crucial necessity for the longevity of our astronauts, their equipment, and the possibility of one day creating permanent human settlements on the Moon or beyond.
“Using in-situ resources is essential to making a sustained presence farther from Earth possible. Just as we need consumables and infrastructure to live and work on our home planet, we’ll need similar support systems on the Moon for crew and robots to operate safely and productively,” said Dr. Prasun Desai, acting associate administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
NASA has already showcased certain ISRU technologies, most notably MOXIE, a small instrument onboard the Mars Perseverance Rover which successfully converted atmospheric carbon dioxide into usable oxygen on April 20, 2021. This type of conversion is useful on a planet like Mars which has an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide. However, the moon has virtually no atmosphere according to NASA, so technology must be created to extract oxygen from naturally occurring minerals in the ground.
NASA has several investments in ISRU technology already in the way of prospecting, extraction and mining initiatives as well as several outstanding academic and industry partnerships but the RFI issued Monday, which is open until December 18, is specifically looking for information on chemical processes capable of harnessing resources from lunar dust and soil.
“Chemical and thermal process developments may provide options to break down naturally occurring minerals and compounds found on the Moon and convert them to propellant or human consumables,” the press release said. “Other potential longer-term applications could lead to extraterrestrial metal processing and construction of lunar surface structures using resources found on the Moon.”
Another representative from NASA leadership said in a written statement that the idea of harnessing oxygen and other usable resources from the ground has been theorized about for a long time but the idea may soon be utilized for real life space travel.
“An ISRU technology demonstration approach has been a topic of discussion within the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative and Consortium communities for several years,” said Niki Werkheiser, director of Technology Maturation in STMD. “This RFI is the next phase to make it a reality.”