Moon-exploring astronauts could get oxygen and fuel from lunar rocks

The Chang'e 5 return capsule at its landing site in Inner Mongolia, China, on Dec. 17, 2020.
The Chang'e 5 return capsule at its landing site in Inner Mongolia, China, on Dec. 17, 2020. (Image credit: CNSA)

Scientists at Nanjing University believe they can use compounds found in lunar soil to locally produce oxygen and fuel to support crewed moon missions.

The team analyzed lunar samples collected by China's Chang'e 5 spacecraft in late 2020 and found that iron-rich and titanium-rich substances present in the moon material could act as a catalyst in a process using sunlight and carbon dioxide.

The "extraterrestrial photosynthesis" strategy uses lunar soil to electrolyze water extracted from the moon into oxygen and hydrogen. Carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts can also be combined with hydrogen from water electrolysis to produce hydrocarbons including methane, which could be used as fuel, according to the new research.

Related: The latest news about China's space program

The team now plans to design a system to utilize lunar soil and solar radiation. The paper, which was published online today (May 5) in the journal Joule, is part of research into using resources present on the moon for supporting human exploration. Being able to produce vital resources locally would reduce the costly need to transport them from Earth.

The new research could have practical applications for China, which is planning a joint moon base with Russia. The International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) will initially be robotic but is expected to be able to host astronauts by the mid-2030s. China's Chang'e 8 mission is expected to launch later this decade to test technology for using local resources and manufacturing with 3D printing.

NASA is also planning to establish a long-term, sustainable human presence on the moon via its Artemis program. Artemis aims to return people to the lunar surface in 2025 and set up a research outpost near the lunar south pole a few years later.

Chang'e 5 launched in November 2020 and delivered 3.81 lbs (1.731 kilograms) of lunar material to Earth a month later. It was the first successful sample return from the moon since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 mission in 1976.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.