Oxygen for the Moon

| Transport

A melt extraction mechanism is used to process the molten moon rock for oxygen extraction

Innovative technology is being developed for astronaut life support systems and propellant manufacturing in space

US space transport and infrastructure company, Sierra Space has completed its $3 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase III Test Readiness Review (TRR) with NASA for its “carbo-thermal reduction” technology.

The Sierra Space system, developed over multiple contracts with NASA, processes and extracts oxygen from minerals in lunar regolith (soil) for use as astronaut life support and in propellant manufacturing in space. Producing oxygen on the moon is a key component for a sustained presence in space and reduces costs by not having to transport the critical element to space on launch vehicles.

According to Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice, by providing a source of oxygen on the moon, this technology will ultimately be used to sustain life support and enable rocket refuelling, therefore greatly reducing the costs associated with spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit.

“As we seek to open affordable access to space for all, today’s progress brings us closer to that possibility through the promise of potential cost-saving and alternative-processing technologies,” he says.

Successful completion of this review is gives some indication of the level of maturity already achieved with the proposed system and is seen by Sierra Space as a critical milestone on the path toward flying on a future NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) demo mission. The company can now proceed with physical hardware testing to show autonomous operation of the so-called carbothermal reactor. This testing will include a demonstration of automatically feeding lunar regolith into the reactor, extracting oxygen-containing gasses from the regolith that can later be converted into pure oxygen, and autonomously removing the processed regolith.

According to Tom Crabb, SVP & GM Space Applications, Sierra Space, the successful completion of the Test Readiness Review is a very important milestone for Sierra Space as the company continues to develop and execute the many ongoing projects it is working on in coordination with NASA.

“Today’s accomplishment helps to expand Sierra Space’s in-space capabilities that will make life in space possible for extended amounts of time. Additionally, today is another step forward on our path to provide and utilise advanced technologies that are necessary to deliver Sierra Space’s mission to develop and create lasting impacts on the commercial space economy.”

Elements of the technology developed for this effort may also be applied in other lunar systems such as regolith tolerant seals, regolith tolerant mechanisms and automated lunar manufacturing.

Jonathan Newell
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