The Surface of The Moon Contains Enough Oxygen to Support 800 million Humans for A Million Years - But There's a Caveat

Dec 30, 2021
4 min read

The Biden administration proposes a 7% increase in NASA's budget to $24.8 billion for the fiscal year 2022 in its budget request. The Science Mission Directorate's budget would be increased by 9% to $7.9 billion within that budget. This shows how space expenditure has been increasing over the years. As more and more things have been discovered in space, more robust systems and machinery have been invented to study the growing space science.

Scientists have been doing continuous efforts to find oxygen on other planets in our galaxy to make life possible on planets other than Earth. But, the extraction of gas from lunar rock layers and fine dust, a good amount of energy, and robust industrial equipment is required. Apart from advances in space discoveries, we have seen tremendous growth in the amount of time and money being invested in the technologies that could allow the effective utilization of resources in space.

In October, NASA and the Australian Space Agency signed a deal to send an Australian-made rover to the moon under the Artemis program, to collect lunar rocks that will provide breathable oxygen to the Moon. Although Moon has an atmosphere like Earth, it cannot sustain mammals like humans who depend on oxygen for living. This is because the thin atmosphere of the Moon is composed of the majority of hydrogen, followed by neon and argon. This makes it difficult for humans to live there.

Although many pieces of research have found that abundant oxygen is present in Moon, as it is not in a gaseous state it can not be used for consumption. It is, instead, trapped in a regolith- layer of rock and fine dust that covers the surface of the Moon. So, if all this trapped oxygen is extracted from regolith, will it be able to sustain human life?

Breadth of Oxygen

On the Moon, there are just as many, if not more, oxygen-rich rocks as there are on Earth. Minerals such as silica, aluminum, iron, and magnesium oxides are prevalent on the surface of moon. All of these minerals include oxygen, but not in a form that can be used by human lungs. On the Moon, these minerals can be found in a variety of forms, such as hard rock, dust, gravel, and stones. Meteorites hitting the lunar surface have amassed this material over millennia.

It won’t be appropriate to use the term "soil" to describe the Moon's surface layer as it is not exactly the soil that we find on Earth but a mixture of multiple substances. Soil, in the form we know it, is a wonderful material found only on Earth. It was created over thousands of years by a varied variety of organisms working on regolith, a hard rock-derived parent material for the soil.

Extracting Oxygen

The finished product is a mineral matrix that was not present in the original rocks. Earth's soil has incredible physical, chemical, and biological qualities. Meanwhile, the Moon's surface components are regolith in their native condition.

As a side effect of this process, oxygen is produced. The primary product would be the oxygen created on the Moon, with the aluminum removed as a possibly valuable byproduct.

It's a simple procedure, but there's one catch: it consumes a lot of energy. Solar energy or other energy sources on the Moon would be required to make it sustainable.

Large-scale industrial apparatus would be required to extract oxygen from regolith. We'd have to first transform solid metal oxide into a liquid, either using heat or by mixing heat with solvents and electrolytes. We already have the technology to do so on Earth, but getting it to the moon and generating enough energy to power it would be tough.

Earlier this year, the Belgian space firm applications services stated that it will build three experimental reactors to enhance the electrolysis process of producing oxygen. As part of the European Space Agency's in-situ resource utilization program, they hope to bring the technology to the Moon by 2025.

Quality of Oxygen

However, how much oxygen would the Moon provide if we were to succeed? Quite a deal, it turns out. Will it be enough for the huge population of Earth to survive? If yes, what is the process, and if not what is the alternative?

If we ignore the oxygen locked in the Moon's underlying hard rock material and simply look at regolith, which is easily accessible on the surface, we can make some estimates.

The average amount of minerals per cubic meter in lunar regolith is 1.4 tonnes, including roughly 630 kg of oxygen. According to NASA, humans need about 800 grams of oxygen every day to survive. On 630 kg of oxygen, a human may live for about two years.

Assume the typical depth of regolith on the Moon is roughly 10 meters, and that we can capture all of the oxygen. This indicates that the top 10 meters of the moon's surface would produce enough oxygen to feed all 800 million people on Earth for a million years.

This would also be contingent on how well we were able to collect and utilize the oxygen, regardless of how extravagant this figure may appear.
On the other hand, we do have it pretty nice here on Earth. And we should do everything we can to protect the blue planet, particularly its soil, which sustains all terrestrial life without our intervention.

Conclusion

Absent from Biden's 2022 allocation proposal for NASA is capital to buy seats on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which NASA depended on entirely to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station for nearly a decade after the space shuttle program culminated. So, there are two choices left for the government. One is to spend a hefty amount to take the system to the Moon or plan out an alternative to make this process a bit more economical.