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Lunar soil may hold key to better crewed missions to the moon

A Chinese lunar probe brought back a soil sample. A team of scientists hopes it will help humans go to the moon.

(CN) — Chang’e 5 is the fifth lunar mission from the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. As soon as the spacecraft returned to Earth with a sample, material scientists from Nanjing University got to work.

Published Thursday in the journal Joule, Yingfang Yao, Zhigang Zou, and their colleagues detailed an experimental study of the lunar soil. They found the soil sample contained compounds such as iron-rich and titanium-rich substances which they believe can be used as a catalyst to make oxygen using sunlight and carbon dioxide.

They proposed what they called an “extraterrestrial photosynthesis strategy," which involves subjecting water extracted from lunar soil and the astronauts’ exhalations to electrolysis. The team electrolyzed the water into oxygen and hydrogen powered by sunlight. Among other things, the process yielded methane, which future space crews could use as fuel.

The strategy did not use any external energy other than sunlight. The study authors say they used this method to “produce a variety of desirable products such as water, oxygen, and fuel that could support life on a moon base."

They hope to use one of China’s future crewed lunar missions to test this system in space.

The research team at Nanjing University holding a lunar soil sample. (Photo by Yingfang Yao)

For previous lunar missions, scientists came up with extraterrestrial survival tactics with one common factor: they had to use materials from Earth. This includes NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, which can use the planet’s atmospheric carbon dioxide to make oxygen but still relies on its nuclear-powered battery.

In the study, Yao said they hope their strategy may minimize or even eliminate the need to bring Earth materials on lunar missions. If successful, one of the upsides is smaller rocket payload. Additionally, this technique has the potential to create a sustainable and affordable living environment on the moon.

Still, Yao said the team will continue to test different approaches to improve the design. One approach involves melting the lunar soil into nanostructured high-entropy materials, or HEMs. According to an unrelated study from March 2020, HEMs have the potential to develop into superior combined mechanical and functional properties compared to conventional alloys such as iron or copper.

Yao and the team believe this technique would make lunar soil a better catalyst for the needs of future lunar missions.
Comparing the future of crewed spaceflight to the ‘Age of Sail’ in the 1600s, Yao dubbed newer ventures into space as an ‘Age of Space’.

“But if we want to carry out large-scale exploration of the extraterrestrial world, we will need to think of ways to reduce payload, meaning relying on as little supplies from Earth as possible and using extraterrestrial resources instead,” Yao wrote.

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