There’s Enough Oxygen in the Lunar Regolith To Support Billions of People Living on the Moon

Aristarchus Crater on the moon. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

When it comes to the future of space exploration, a handful of practices are essential for mission planners. Foremost among them is the concept of In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), providing food, water, construction materials, and other vital elements using local resources. And when it comes to missions destined for the Moon and Mars in the coming years, the ability to harvest ice, regolith, and other elements are crucial to mission success.

In preparation for the Artemis missions, NASA planners are focused on finding the optimal way to produce oxygen gas (O2) from all of the elemental oxygen locked up in the Moon’s surface dust (aka. lunar regolith). In fact, current estimates indicate that there is enough elemental oxygen contained in the top ten meters (33 feet) of lunar regolith to create enough O2 for every person on Earth for the next 100,000 years – more than enough for a lunar settlement!

While the Moon does have a very tenuous atmosphere that contains elemental oxygen, it is so thin that scientists characterize the Moon as an “airless body.” But within the lunar regolith, the fine powder and rocks that cover the surface, there are abundant amounts of oxygen in lunar rocks and regolith. Also known as “Moondust,” this fine dust permeates the lunar surface and is the result of billions of years of impacts by meteors and comets.

According to John Grant, a lecturer in soil science at Southern Cross University, Australia, the Moon’s regolith is approximately 45% oxygen by content. However, this oxygen is bound up in oxidized minerals – particularly silica, aluminum, iron, and magnesium. The isoptic composition of these minerals is almost identical to minerals on Earth, which led to theories that the Earth-Moon system formed together billions of years ago (aka. the Giant Impact Hypothesis).

However, for that oxygen to be usable by future astronauts and lunar inhabitants, it needs to be extracted from all that regolith, which requires a significant amount of energy to break the chemical bonds. On Earth, this process (known as electrolysis) is commonly used to manufacture metals, where melted-down oxides are subjected to electrical current to separate the minerals from the oxygen.

In this case, the oxygen gas is produced as a byproduct so that metals can be produced for the sake of construction and fabrication. But on the Moon, oxygen would be the main product while the metals would be set aside as a potentially useful byproduct – most likely for habitat construction. As Grant explained in a recent article in The Conservation, the process is straightforward but suffers from two major roadblocks when adapted for space:

“[I]t’s very energy hungry. To be sustainable, it would need to be supported by solar energy or other energy sources available on the Moon. Extracting oxygen from regolith would also 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. We have the technology to do this on Earth, but moving this apparatus to the Moon – and generating enough energy to run it – will be a mighty challenge.”

ESA lunar base concept. Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

In short, the process needs to be much more energy-efficient to be considered sustainable, which could be accomplished through solar power. Around the South-Pole Aitken Basin, solar arrays could be positioned around the rim of the permanently-shadowed craters to provide an uninterrupted flow of energy. But getting the industrial equipment there would still present a monumental challenge.

But if and when we did establish the infrastructure, there’s still the question of how much oxygen we could extract. As Grant indicates, if we consider just the regolith that is easily accessible on the surface and factor in data provided by NASA and the Lunar Planetary Institute (LPI), some estimates are possible:

“Each cubic metre of lunar regolith contains 1.4 tonnes of minerals on average, including about 630 kilograms of oxygen. NASA says humans need to breathe about 800 grams of oxygen a day to survive. So 630kg oxygen would keep a person alive for about two years (or just over).

“Now let’s assume the average depth of regolith on the Moon is about ten metres, and that we can extract all of the oxygen from this. That means the top ten metres of the Moon’s surface would provide enough oxygen to support all eight billion people on Earth for somewhere around 100,000 years.”

Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the Moon. Credit: NASA

In many ways, estimating how an astronomical body will present opportunities for ISRU is like mineral prospecting. For example, NASA recently announced that the metallic asteroid Psyche II might contain as much as $10,000 quadrillion worth of precious metals and ores. In 2022, the Psyche orbiter will rendezvous with this asteroid, which could be the core remnant of a planetoid that lost its outer layers, to study it closely.

Naturally, some disagree with this assessment, citing that Pysche II’s composition and density are not particularly well-constrained. For others, estimates of this nature ignore the sheer cost of extracting that wealth, which would require that extensive infrastructure be built beforehand. And even then, hauling that kind of mass from the Asteroid Belt to Earth presents numerous logistical issues.

The same goes for asteroid mining, a potentially-lucrative venture that could result in trillions being mined from Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) in the near future. However, this is also contingent on creating a robust space-mining infrastructure that is still very much in the conceptual stage. Luckily, when it comes to establishing ISRU-related infrastructure on the Moon, proposed methods and pathways have been in place since the 1960s.

In the coming years, multiple missions will be sent to the Moon to investigate these possibilities further, two of which Grant cites in his article. In early October, NASA signed a deal with the Australian Space Agency to develop a small lunar rover that could be sent to the Moon as early as 2026. The purpose of this rover will be to collect samples of lunar regolith and transfer them to a NASA-operation ISRU system on a commercial lunar lander.

Artist’s illustration of the new spacesuit NASA is designing for Artemis astronauts. It’s called the xEMU, or Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit. Credit: NASA

Also, the Belgium-based startup Space Applications Systems (SAS) announced this past summer that it was building three experimental reactors for on the Moon. They were one of four finalists contracted by the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop a compact technology demonstrator that can harvest oxygen to manufacture propellant for spacecraft, air for astronauts, and metallic raw materials for equipment.

The company hopes to send the technology to the Moon as part of a planned ESA ISRU Demonstration mission, which is currently scheduled to go to the Moon by 2025. These and other technologies are being pursued to ensure that humanity’s long-awaited return to the Moon will be to say.

Originally published on Universe Today.

For more on this subject, see The Moon’s Top Layer Has Enough Oxygen To Sustain 8 Billion People for 100,000 Years.

Comments ( 30 )
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  • Andres Albarran

    that’s awesome my question is how would turning it into a legitimate micro-planet with its own ecosystem so we don’t always need to exist inside domes affect earth? Obviously it’s a possibility with a conscious reformation theory which would fall into the classification of conformal field theories, mine in particular ive called Solaric which states an of the sun energy can be made to consciously reengineer itself to manifest as a spherical mass from it’s molecular formation to an atomic state. A process of implanting reformated hallucinogenic elements into the atmosphere through one or perhaps both routes either with micro detonations of Psychoactive Fusion Weapons; on the other hand open reactors that constantly releases pure proton dominant isotopic consciousness at it most decryptive state into the lunar environment; outcome being the raising of mineral consciousness at the subatomic level. Said elements in humans cause hightend awareness as well as neurological cellular growth when applying the fact that we are atoms the elements affect our atomic build up at the deepest levels. that being a fact the elementals in their atomic isotope state would be considered a more potent equation obviously the decipherable a similar effectomatic outcome would occur to mineral deposits. smarter elements know how to go through atomic decay a process of condensation which would cause element one “hydrogen” to be released into the environment being conscious they’d be capable of atomic accumulation which would create the essential ingredients for life as we know it.

    • Andres Albarran

      Through apply auxin to the minerals as well as photosynthesis with a viral reencryption that’s engraved into the DNA we could cause the smallest of subatomics to become atoms as the process of decay occurs through light ray absorption.

      • Andres Albarran

        effectomatic- as in alterations through the use of mathematical equations.

  • Jeff Mitchell

    Very well thought. Now, the execution of such a plan is the problem.

  • Philip Carter

    The most energy efficient way to mine astroids like physce is to built a ship and carry it to the astroid. Using it as a space tug boat attach it to the astroid. Fire it’s engines to stop the astroid and push it towards earth. Once in earth orbit do a slow, controlled entry dropping it in a desert or isolated location. We already have the means to mine it hear. Problem solved.

  • Philip

    Science needs to apply the kiss principle to everything it does. When the nuclear bomb was first developed the scientist did not understand how or why it worked but they understood that it worked so they would say ” Don’t worry about the why just keep doing what works.” Kiss, keep it simple stupid.

  • George Godwin

    Bad enough we screwed up the earth, now you want to go to another planet and screw it up.

  • Isus Pecthis

    Sooooo when are we going to put an experimental nuclear-fusion reactor on the moon to power-melt some rocks? Can’t wait for it to run amok detonate and shatter the moon into Earth-bound shrapnel.

  • Kurt

    Who believes this stuff? NASA lies about everything, it’s all fake.
    NASA= Money laundering

  • Ed m. AKA MOE4KER

    Why leave something we destroyed an need when we can stop the destruction an do a pre thought rebuilding of the earth an use or brains to remake the needs we have into what is compatible with this place we were so lucky to have.?

  • Ulrich Ortner

    Lies it’s all fake news,aliens are crawling all over the moon,it’s a false construct to control humans,put in place aeons ago,we are a genetic slave colony unfortunatly,sad but true

  • Humanity

    This is waste of tax payer money it will NEVER Happen. Humans where created we didn’t create & don’t own and will never control this planet or universe. We should take care of and enjoy this planet for as long as it allows us to remain here.

  • Pete

    Seriously, get off this whole living on another planet idea out of your head. It will never work or ever be a reality. Work on something that is more useful like fixing the planet we have been destroying now. How about take care of Earth. Humans are disgusting creatures that just take and destroy. Now that you’ve killed this planet you want to kill others?

  • Name Kept-private

    It’s been said that “Truth is stranger then fiction”.
    Our history has proven repeatedly that our best (and worst) works of fiction have ended up becoming humanity, and societies truth.
    Let’s not add The Time Machine to that list by destroying the Moon and eventually the Earth along with it. Moon fragments hitting us are just one way this that could play out. Other possible p
    issues have just as low of a probability as the moon splitting into pieces and raining down on Earth, but still they are no less destructive. And there is no impossibilities when there is even the slightest probability..
    Has anyone really thought what the implications might be if such vast manipulation (increasing/decreasing) of the moons mass were to occur. The impact it would have on Earth, our oceans, the fauna, etc.
    One guy suggested “tugboating” an asteroid into Earth’s orbit to mine it, we have been lucky not being hit by one. That could cause a whole host of problems, besides the obvious planet killing one.
    Consume that’s all most of you think about. The Industrial revolution did more damage to this planet in its first 100 years then we could have done in 5 million years if it never occurred at all.
    Is humanity and our ONLY HOME really better off with the advancements in industry and technology. We are sicker physically, mentally, and morally then have ever been, maybe stop spreading that sickness, stop looking upward outward and start look inward and cure the sickness.

  • Ben

    Earth First!
    (We’ll strip mine the other planets later)

  • J.R

    The countless assumptions made in this article are grossly misleading, and thus highly inaccurate.

    Humanity should NOT attempt to populate the Moon or the planets or the stars until the species matures enough.

    The destruction of the Earth, and the peoples of the Earth is quite drastic already, and it is highly unlikely that we will survive long enough to develop the technological capability of supporting an off-planet civilization that would be extremely dependent upon resupply from Earth.

    It may be possible to setup temporary bases that would last a few months, but that’s not the same thing as providing oxygen for a 100,000 years from an energy-intensive Moon destructive extraction effort. The species is too immature to expect peace on the Moon or anywhere else and would very likely destroy itself and their habitats just like they have here, all over the planet for thousands of years.

    We do not need the stars to survive – we need the Earth to survive and the way we treat this planet and each other demonstrates that we do not deserve to survive.

  • Alan mainwaing

    Just an idea about using the mssive temp differance across the dark and the sunny side. The temp differance would be some 300 kelvin this could drive a stirling engine generating electric power this would be continous since moon axis is almost 90 degrees to plane of elliptic. Do not need a nucleur reactor. I wonder if it work.

  • Kevin Scholer

    Good thing we don’t need anything else to survive 😉

  • andrea k.

    Nuclear reactors on moon risk meltdowns splitting it into fragments. It would destroy the tides of earth resulting in total destruction.

  • James E Foster

    Some of you complaining about take care of this planet first are against using resources to clean up the air, water, and earth. So you’re a bunch of hypocrites! We should go to the moon, Mars, and any other cosmic body because we can.

  • MJC

    When we learn how to save and sustain our planet, then we’ll have the knowledge and the wisdom to look into exploration, colonization of our universe. Until then it’s a pipe dream

  • Photon Surfer

    Yeah, let’s just start messing with the moon too! See what else we can destroy. Has anyone considered if we reduced or increased the weight of the moon, what would happen to Earth?

  • James vey

    Could all those who want to go leave at once?

  • Ernest Grawcock

    What a bunch of horse sh*t!
    50 some years later another “FAKED” Moon mission. I suppose they’ve conquered the firmament . More deep state Shenanigans to Fandango money from the good peopleOf the US of a

  • Matthew Timothy

    This is a neat idea but the question isn’t if we should do this on the moon, but why not do it on earth? Main cause of global warming is an increased CO2 level vs oxygen and nitrogen. Wouldn’t pumping more oxygen into our atmosphere help cool the earth? Is this process not entirely different from how the earth naturally developed it’s atmosphere in the first place? Let’s start smashing oxygen out of rocks!

  • Bill

    If that quantity of precious metals were actually mined and injected into the market precious metals would become worthless it’s the rarity that we give value to.

  • James William Donahue

    To Whom it may concern,
    Using Moon rocks, and Moon resources for oxygen to build Moon base?
    Why not just take over the alien structures, crafts, buildings, and Anomalies scattered all over and under the surface? To conceal, hide the truth about the Moon being a alien structure itself ( metal casing underneath shallow surface) and covered in alien structures is a travesty.
    Mars is also covered in alien structures, engineered parts, and futuristic buildings..Maybe you(NASA, and powers that be) can claim ownership,and take the credit for all the technology, structures, crafts ..The rovers have a lens that changes the true colors of scenery.Wgixh us more like Earth.Before the video, and pics are released to the media.They are camouflaged, edited, and replaced by computer generated pretend landscape..
    Not all the editing,and omitting of the scattered alien debri are removed..Some of the pics are quite revealing..
    Stop lieng ,and hiding the truth about alien city’s, structures on the Moon and Mars..As well as Antarctica here on Earth.
    Buzz Aldrin and others on Apollo Missions 11 through 16 have talked about alien structures on the Moon.And Mr.Aldrin said quote,” there on the edge of the crater,alien structures and craft.”They asked us to leave,and this was there low gravity planet”..

  • A Brit

    Exploring in general is a terrible idea. The greatest exploration mistake of all was when we discovered the Americas, look where that got us.

  • Bernard

    I’m so interested in knowing whether it does rain on the moon also. How do alien looks like

  • Me

    Get rid of all the fkn idiots from this planet and send them to the moon 🤣🤣🤣