The experiments conducted by the Polytechnic University of Milan and OHB Italia to extract oxygen from lunar sand
A chemical-physical process that allows oxygen to be extracted from lunar regolith (the fine material covering the Moon) is the “recipe” that will enable production of water on the Moon’s surface. The discovery marks an important scientific achievement that is the result of experiments and the collaboration between the Polytechnic University of Milan and OHB Italia as part of the project ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilisation) of the European Space Agency, with the important contribution of ASI, the Italian Space Agency.
This important step forward, entirely “Made in Italy”, contributes to the long-term programme whose goal is the human colonisation of the Moon. It sees utilisation of the resources of the Earth as essential: water, oxygen and hydrogen are all elements vital to supporting the life of a crew for extended periods.
Several phases are involved: in 2024, missions are planned with astronauts, preceded by the missions of NASA’s ARTEMIS programme (in collaboration with the ESA); in late 2021 without the crew, and the second in 2023 will also include astronauts for a circumnavigation of our satellite.
Key players of the discovery
The research team led by professor Michèle Lavagna used a prototype system designed and installed in the laboratories of the Department of Aerospace Science and Technology at the Polytechnic, taking advantage of the many different skill sets present at the University and the systemic capabilities of OHB Italia.
Feeding the system with sand simulating the lunar surface at the poles, researchers managed to produce the expected quantity of water by extracting oxygen from oxides in the minerals that compose the soil of the Moon. The thin layer of powdery sand covering the Moon actually contains minerals that are found on Earth, and this made possible the use of chemical transformation processes noted in industrial applications on our planet.
The discovery represents an important production capacity that frees future moonbases from the use of open-cycle systems that require constant resupplying from Earth, thereby simplifying logistics and reducing the related costs of transporting materials – a precious contribution to the research and future of Space Economy.