Moon’s atmosphere is very thin and consists of hydrogen, neon, and argon. It’s not the sort of gaseous mixture that could sustain oxygen-dependent mammals such as humans.
It’s been said that there is plenty of oxygen on the Moon, but not in the gaseous form. Instead, it is trapped inside a regolith.
Here arises an important question:
If we could extract oxygen from regolith, would it be enough to support human life on the Moon?
A new study by the Southern Cross University suggests that Moon’s top layer has enough oxygen that it can sustain 8 billion people for 100,000 years.
Moon is mainly made of mineral rocks, found commonly on Earth. Minerals such as silica, aluminum, and iron, and magnesium oxides dominate the Moon’s landscape. All of these minerals contain oxygen, but not in a form our lungs can access.
These minerals on Moon exist in a few different forms, including hard rock, dust, gravel, and stones covering the surface.
Moon’s regolith is made up of approximately 45% oxygen. But that oxygen is tightly bound into the minerals mentioned above. To break apart those strong bonds, we need to put in energy.
Extracting oxygen from regolith would require substantial industrial equipment. We’d need to first convert solid metal oxide into liquid form, either by applying heat or heat combined with solvents or electrolytes.
This technology is available on Earth, but getting it on Moon would be a challenge.
In early 2021, Belgium-based startup Space Applications Services announced it was building three experimental reactors to improve making oxygen via electrolysis. They expect to send the technology to the Moon by 2025 as part of the European Space Agency’s in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) mission.
Each cubic meter of lunar regolith contains 1.4 tonnes of minerals on average, including about 630 kilograms of oxygen. According to NASA, Humans require about 800 grams of oxygen to breathe/ per day.
As mentioned in the Conversation, “If we can extract all of the oxygen from the above ten meters of moon’s top layer, it would provide enough oxygen to support all eight billion people on Earth for somewhere around 100,000 years.”