NASA gasping for ideas to extract oxygen from Moon dirt

Wants 'tens of metric tons of O2 production per year' on the cheap

NASA has opened the brainstorming-bay doors to anyone with ideas on how to extract oxygen from Moon rocks - a key element of the space agency's work to "develop infrastructure technologies to enable a sustained presence on the lunar surface." 

The Lunar Infrastructure Foundational Technologies1 (LIFT-1) demonstration [PDF] is focused on developing a scalable method for processing lunar regolith (the dusty rock that covers the lunar surface meters deep) to produce oxygen, but NASA isn't discounting any "collateral products" like metals and other resources necessary for life on our closest natural satellite. 

LIFT-1 is specifically thinking about the regolith at the 13 potential landing sites around the Moon's South Pole that were identified last year as showing indications of usable materials for a future human habitat. 

The sites are believed to hold plentiful deposits of hydrogen, water ice and other substances that could be extracted to various ends, once humans return to the Moon as early as 2025. But let's face it, the mission will probably be later than that, if it lifts off at all.

Don't get too excited, though - the announcement issued by NASA on Monday isn't saying there's a readily-deployable technical solution. This is just a request for information (RFI) to help NASA figure out what LIFT-1 could do to reduce risks of subsequent commercial activity on the Moon, and what private industry may need from NASA to make lunar oxygen extraction a reality.

There's no telling if and when a mission like LIFT-1 or any other in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) tech could show up on the Moon to support astronauts, and NASA didn't respond to questions to that end. 

Regardless of the early stage, NASA is still quite specific on what it wants a LIFT-1 demonstrator to be capable of. According to the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), LIFT-1 concepts need to: 

  • Be capable of end-to-end extracting, processing and storing oxygen from lunar dust,
  • Perform all steps in the process in a single lunar day (roughly 29.5 Earth days),
  • Do its work "without surface human interaction," 
  • Fit on a single lunar lander,
  • Have enough power to perform a minimum of three extraction processing cycles,
  • Have the instrumentation to determine how lunar regolith extraction compares to simulated Moon dust in future Earth-based tests.

NASA said it anticipates future demonstration missions needing to do all of that - including launching from Earth and landing on the Moon - with no more than $250 million. 

"NASA envisions commercial operations will start with production of tens of metric tons of oxygen production per year but will evolve into hundreds to thousands of metric tons of oxygen, water, propellants, construction and manufacturing feedstock, and additional commodities," the STMD said in its RFI. 

Interested parties are encouraged to tune into a virtual industry forum hosted by NASA on Monday, November 13 for more details. Responses are due to NASA by December 18. ®

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