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Science

Could Lunar Soil be the Key to Reaching Mars?

Humanity’s exploration into the final frontier is notoriously costly, despite SpaceX drastically reducing the price per kilogram of a spacecraft into the hundreds in recent years. With rockets burning thousands of pounds of fuel per second upon liftoff, seizing every opportunity to reduce craft payloads is critical.

Downsizing payloads is significant as NASA and China plan to create moon bases, and SpaceX intends to help establish Mars colonization. What if the heavy fuel and oxygen needed to take us to Mars was not brought from Earth but instead synthesized along the journey?

Lunar soil samples extracted by China’s Chang’E 5 spacecraft suggest that minerals available on the moon could be used to help convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and fuel.

Nanjing University material scientists Yingfang Yao and Zhigang Zou published a study in the journal Joule exploring this idea on May 5th, 2022. Success in this endeavor could turn the moon into a lunar gas station of sorts, potentially expediting the mission to Mars.

Details of Discovery

China’s Chang’E-5 spacecraft returned moon samples to Earth in 2020, harvesting them from a moon site called Oceanus Procellarum (the Ocean of Storms) because this area was thought to hold more recently formed material.

This was the first time man had retrieved moon soil since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976, and they were the youngest samples ever retrieved, aged just 1.2 billion years old. This is much younger than the samples NASA’s Apollo astronauts returned, which varied between 3.1 and 4.4 billion years old.

Chang’E-5 gathered 3.7 pounds of rock from 2 meters below the moon’s surface before transferring them to a return capsule which was left in lunar orbit. The return capsule landed in inner Mongolia on Dec. 17th, 2020, with the samples still intact.

The Nanjing University researchers discovered the rocks taken from the Oceanus Procellarum to be exceptionally high in iron and titanium compounds, which held the potential for extraterrestrial chemistry on the moon. Using iron and titanium as catalysts could create valuable products like oxygen, methane, and water.

Chemistry on the Moon

The study proposes a process called “extraterrestrial photosynthesis,” using techniques and elements readily available on the moon’s surface to assist in obtaining desired results. The plan is to utilize sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide exhaled and collected by astronauts in combination with the natural minerals found.

The system outlined in the journal entry uses soil minerals to electrolyze available water into hydrogen and oxygen, powered by sunlight collected on the moon. Then, the accumulated carbon dioxide is combined with the new hydrogen in a hydrogenation process, creating methane, a usable fuel source.

This process has been tested on Earth with the samples brought back by Chang’E-5’s rover with some success. Researchers found the samples were able to create desired products but are not nearly as efficient as purer minerals found on Earth. The team looks forward to testing this process on the moon and is developing new ways to make extraterrestrial photosynthesis more efficient and practical.

Scientists have previously proposed extraterrestrial survival processes, but this is the first approach that functions solely on resources available outside of Earth.

Research is funded by several organizations, including, but not limited to, the Major Research Plan of the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National Key Research and Development Program of China, the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities, the Program for Guangdong Introducing Innovative and Entrepreneurial Teams and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

This Could Be Huge for NASA & SpaceX

Yao’s team expects the future spaceflight industry to develop rapidly and sees plans to reduce fuel and oxygen payloads as necessary preparations. If refined and made practical, China’s “extraterrestrial photosynthesis” project could affect future space travel on a global scale.

NASA announced its “Artemis” mission in 2017 and planned to return to the moon and establish long-term residency. They are partnering with five private companies, including SpaceX and Blue origin, to help realize their plans for moon exploration and the establishment of an “Artemis Base Camp.”

They are currently aiming to send the first Artemis uncrewed spacecraft to the moon later this year and two crewed spacecraft in 2024 and 2025.

They will gather data that can only be obtained by living on the moon and use it to propel the first astronauts to Mars. The moon is located 238,900 miles from Earth, while Mars is 148.41 million miles from Earth, a far longer journey.

In addition to establishing the Artemis base camp at the moon’s south pole, they plan to have a space station called “the Gateway” remain in the moon’s orbit. NASA sees establishment on the moon as a vital staging point for travel to Mars.

As described in the Artemis mission plan, they will utilize both locations to simulate the multi-month mission to and from Mars, the most extended amount of time astronauts have remained in space.

“These missions will be by far the longest human deep space missions in history. They will be the operational tests of our technical and operational readiness for the first human Mars mission.” writes NASA.

Elon Musk of SpaceX was cited predicting a crewed mission to Mars for 2029, a goal contingent on the success of the Artemis program. So if adopting an “extraterrestrial photosynthesis” from China’s space exploration program could mean sustaining life on the moon, sending astronauts to Mars before the end of the decade could be more realistic than it sounds. This, of course, will take much polishing, as Yao’s journal represents only a prototype for a complex process.

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