Since the first moon landing in 1969, it’s long been a goal to establish lunar colonies. After all, the moon has water we could use, subterranean caves we could inhabit, and now, it seems, a native way to generate a steady source of usable energy. With the upcoming Artemis project from NASA that aims to bring humans back to the satellite, it’s more important than ever to research and invest in resources for a long-term lunar stay.
Luckily, scientists in China might have discovered something that can help. In a new study published Thursday in the journal Joule, the researchers found that chemical compounds in lunar soil are capable of transforming carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and hydrocarbons like methane that can be used as fuel. The team says these chemical compounds can act as catalysts—substances that speed up chemical reactions—to form an extraterrestrial photosynthesis system. This means that lunar soil along with sunlight could be used to support long-term lunar living for colonies.
It goes back to one big challenge standing in the way of sustainable living outside Earth: resources. You can only bring so much breathable air, usable water, and fuel on a space mission. While scientists are developing technologies that allow astronauts to tap into planetary resources, those technologies still require elements from home. For example, NASA’s Perseverance rover carries a device named MOXIE that can turn Martian carbon dioxide into oxygen long enough to keep an astronaut healthy for 10 minutes. But MOXIE still relies on electrical power from an Earth-built battery onboard.
It’s crucial then to make like the Swiss Family Robinson and survive entirely on the resources that the moon can provide. In the new study, the researchers found that it might be possible via iron, magnesium, and titanium-rich substances found in lunar soil. They found that these substances—coupled with ultraviolet light—were capable of making carbon dioxide and oxygen from water. The catalysts also made small amounts of hydrogen gas, methane, and methanol. Each of these elements and chemicals can be used to create fuel and other materials needed for long-term lunar colonization.
“We use in-situ environmental resources to minimize rocket payload, and our strategy provides a scenario for a sustainable and affordable extraterrestrial living environment,” Yingfang Yao, an engineer at Nanjing University and study lead author, said in a press release.
While the catalysts aren’t as efficient as ones on Earth, Yao and his team are working on improving their design. They envision a future where lunar-life support and fuel systems combine the power of the moon’s soil with sunlight, which is abundant in spades. These “extraterrestrial photosynthesis” systems could be a means for a constant supply of oxygen as well as refueling space vehicles or rocket propellants.
“In the near future, we will see the crewed spaceflight industry developing rapidly,” said Yao. “Just like the ‘Age of Sail’ in the 1600s when hundreds of ships head to the sea, we will enter 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.”