What if you could use Moon regolith, a mineral ore containing various oxides, to 3D print objects? You can, it has been proven both for housing structures and ceramic parts. What if, going one step farther, you could extract structural metals from regolith and, what if, the byproduct of that process is one of the most important elements for humans in space, used for both breathing and fuel: oxygen. That’s exactly what the European Space Agency wants to find out with a new contract awarded to Thales Alenia Space. The agency is paying one million euros for a payload concept to extract oxygen from Moon rock, using a technology developed by Metalysis which is also used – on Earth – to obtain metal AM powders from metal oxides and ore.
Andrew Stanniland, CEO of Thales Alenia Space in the UK commented “This contract award is incredibly exciting. The adaption of processes and tools to the space environment, many of which we take for granted on Earth, will be critical in many areas of our future. I am proud that our dedicated teams will be leading this study together with our valued partners AVS, Metalysis, Open University and Redwire Space Europe to solve the complex challenge of creating oxygen to sustain life on the lunar surface”.
For a sustainable habitation on the Moon, humans will need to utilize resources that they find on location, among which regolith is most abundant, rather than transport these resources from Earth; one of these resources is oxygen. Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between Thales (67%) and Leonardo (33%) work with AVS, Metalysis, Open University and Redwire Space Europe to specify a demonstration payload for a European Space Agency Lunar Mission that uses molten salt and electrolysis to extract oxygen from Moon rock ‘regolith’.
The winning proposal from an ESA competition between multiple industrial consortia, this payload concept will demonstrate that In Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) can be performed on the Moon efficiently and to produce oxygen in the quantities required by future Moon colonies.
Metalysis has a commercially proven electrolytic technology that can reduce metal oxides and ores into pure metals and alloys. Here on Earth, the Metalysis wet chemistry refractory metal refining facility can achieve unique control over oxide powder characteristics, including morphology, purity and a chemical mixing system for pre-alloy oxide feedstock. The process utilizes a proprietary solvent extraction system to reduce metals such as tantalum, aluminum-scandium, titanium-aluminide and bespoke novel alloys. By having exacting control over oxide production Metalysis can control particulate properties and prepare precision feedstock products of high purity or multi-element mixtures resulting in bespoke morphologies and metal powder characteristics from the subsequent molten salt de-oxidation process.
The process generates no toxic by-products. Further, pre-alloyed or ore feedstock (such as Lunar regolith) may be used directly because it is a ‘powder in, powder out’ process. Metals are constrained by their melting points and densities. In conventional melting technology, this renders some compositions obsolete; but the Metalysis process is able to generate metal powders, in-demand alloy powders and completely new alloys. Some cases of which historically have been considered impossible.
In fact, the presence of oxygen in the air is one of the biggest challenges to AM on Earth. If a tiny amount of oxygen comes into contact with the powders during the build process, parts can be irremediably ruined. Furthermore, many metal powders are highly explosive and if they come in contact with oxygen as they are being hit by a high-power laser, explosions are the inevitable result. In space, it’s all different. In space, oxygen is life for humans but there is no “loose” oxygen to affect any AM process, which makes AM an ideal technology for in-space manufacturing. This latest project also proves that AM powder production can be an ideal process for survival in space.
David Binns Systems Engineer at ESA’s Concurrent Design Facility added “ESA is looking forward to working with Thales Alenia Space in the UK and their partners to develop an oxygen extraction demonstrator further as part of the space resources initiative. Finding solutions to the challenges posed to make sustainable lunar exploration a reality”.
The Lunar Gateway is one of the pillars of NASA’s Artemis program, supporting a sustainable presence on the Moon and exploration beyond. It’s an international project, led by the two main contributors NASA (United States) and ESA (Europe). Weighing about 40 metric tons, the Gateway will be automatically assembled piece by piece and placed in a “near rectilinear halo orbit” (NRHO) around the Moon. It mainly comprises habitation modules for the crew, power and propulsion systems, logistics modules, communications systems, a robotic arm and docking ports. It is not intended for permanent occupancy but will be able to host 4-person crews for periods of one to three months. Gaining new experience around the Moon will prepare NASA to send the first humans to Mars from 2030 – and the Gateway will play a key role in this process.
Along with current projects Thales Alenia Space has also been chosen to design advanced solutions for a sustained human presence on the Moon. One of these visionary studies is EL3, or the European Large Logistic Lander (EL3). A free-standing part of international lunar exploration activities, it’s a versatile system designed to support a variety of missions. It is aimed to provide cargo and logistics services for NASA-led lunar missions via Artemis and support a European mission to study the Lunar South Pole with a robotic laboratory derived from the designed sample fetch rover.