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The Moon’s Surface Has Enough Oxygen to Keep Billions Alive For 100,000 Years

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Alongside advances in space exploration, we’ve recently seen much time and money invested into technologies that could allow effective space resource utilization. And at the forefront of these efforts has been a laser-sharp focus on finding the best way to produce oxygen on the Moon.

In October, the Australian Space Agency and NASA signed a deal to send an Australian-made rover to the Moon under the Artemis program, with a goal to collect lunar rocks that could ultimately provide breathable oxygen on the Moon.

Although the Moon does have an atmosphere, it’s very thin and composed mostly of hydrogen, neon, and argon. It’s not the sort of gaseous mixture that could sustain oxygen-dependent mammals such as humans.

That said, there is actually plenty of oxygen on the Moon. It just isn’t in a gaseous form. Instead it’s trapped inside regolith – the layer of rock and fine dust that covers the Moon’s surface.

If we could extract oxygen from regolith, would it be enough to support human life on the Moon?

The breadth of oxygen

Oxygen can be found in many of the minerals in the ground around us. And the Moon is mostly made of the same rocks you’ll find on Earth (although with a slightly greater amount of material that came from meteors).

Minerals such as silica, aluminum, and iron and magnesium oxides dominate the Moon’s landscape. All of these minerals contain oxygen, but not in a form our lungs can access.

On the Moon these minerals exist in a few different forms including hard rock, dust, gravel, and stones covering the surface. This material was resulted from the impacts of meteorites crashing into the lunar surface over countless millennia.

Some people call the Moon’s surface layer lunar “soil”, but as a soil scientist I’m hesitant to use this term. Soil as we know it is pretty magical stuff that only occurs on Earth. It has been created by a vast array of organisms working on the soil’s parent material – regolith, derived from hard rock – over millions of years.

The result is a matrix of minerals which were not present in the original rocks. Earth’s soil is imbued with remarkable physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. Meanwhile, the materials on the Moon’s surface is basically regolith in its original, untouched form.

One substance goes in, two come out
The Moon’s regolith is made up of approximately 45 percent oxygen. But that oxygen is tightly bound into the minerals mentioned above. In order to break apart those strong bonds, we need to put in energy.

You might be familiar with this if you know about electrolysis. On Earth this process is commonly used in manufacturing, such as to produce aluminum. An electrical current is passed through a liquid form of aluminum oxide (commonly called alumina) via electrodes, to separate the aluminum from the oxygen.

In this case, the oxygen is produced as a byproduct. On the Moon, the oxygen would be the main product and the aluminum (or other metal) extracted would be a potentially useful byproduct.

It’s a pretty straightforward process, but there is a catch: it’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.

Earlier this year, Belgium-based startup Space Applications Services announced it was building three experimental reactors to improve the process of making oxygen via electrolysis. They expect to send the technology to the Moon by 2025 as part of the European Space Agency’s in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) mission.

How much oxygen could the Moon provide?

That said, when we do manage to pull it off, how much oxygen might the Moon actually deliver? Well, quite a lot as it turns out.

If we ignore oxygen tied up in the Moon’s deeper hard rock material – and just consider regolith which is easily accessible on the surface – we can come up with some estimates.

Each cubic meter 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 630 kg 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 10 meters, and that we can extract all of the oxygen from this. That means the top 10 meters of the Moon’s surface would provide enough oxygen to support all 8 billion people on Earth for somewhere around 100,000 years.

This would also depend on how effectively we managed to extract and use the oxygen. Regardless, this figure is pretty amazing!

Having said that, we do have it pretty good here on Earth. And we should do everything we can to protect the blue planet – and its soil in particular – which continues to support all terrestrial life without us even trying.
John Grant, Lecturer in Soil Science, Southern Cross University.

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Space

There’s one last place Planet Nine could be hiding

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A study recently submitted to The Astronomical Journal
continues to search for the elusive Planet Nine (also called Planet X),
which is a hypothetical planet that potentially orbits in the outer
reaches of the solar system and well beyond the orbit of the dwarf
planet, Pluto.

The goal of this study, which is available on the pre-print server arXiv,
was to narrow down the possible locations of Planet Nine and holds the
potential to help researchers better understand the makeup of our solar
system, along with its formation and evolutionary processes. So, what
was the motivation behind this study regarding narrowing down the
location of a potential Planet 9?

Dr. Mike Brown, who is a Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of
Astronomy at Caltech and lead author of the study, tells Universe Today,
“We are continuing to try to systematically cover all of the regions of
the sky where we predict Planet Nine to be. Using data from Pan-STARRS
allowed us to cover the largest region to date.”

Pan-STARRS, which stands for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid
Response System, is a collaborative astronomical observation system
located at Haleakala Observatory and operated by the University of
Hawai’i Institute of Astronomy. For the study, the researchers used data
from Data Release 2 (DR2) with the goal of narrowing down the possible
location of Planet Nine based on findings from past studies.

In the end, the team narrowed down possible locations of Planet Nine
by eliminating approximately 78% of possible locations that were
calculated from previous studies. Additionally, the researchers also
provided new estimates for the approximate semimajor axis (measured in
astronomical units, AU) and Earth-mass size of Planet Nine at 500 and
6.6, respectively. So, what are the most significant results from this
study, and what follow-up studies are currently being conducted or
planned?

“While I would love to say that the most significant result
was finding Planet Nine, we didn’t,” Dr. Brown tells Universe Today. “So
instead, it means that we have significantly narrowed the search area.
We’ve now surveyed approximately 80% of the regions where we think
Planet Nine might be.”

In terms of follow-up studies, Dr.
Brown tells Universe Today, “I think that the LSST is the most likely
survey to find Planet Nine. When it comes online in a year or two it
will quickly cover much of the search space and, if Planet Nine is
there, find it.”

LSST stands for Legacy Survey of Space and Time, and is an
astronomical survey currently scheduled as a 10-year program to study
the southern sky and take place at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in
Chile, which is presently under construction.

Objectives for LSST include studying identifying near-Earth asteroids
(NEAs) and small planetary bodies within our solar system, but also
include deep space studies, as well. These include investigating the
properties of dark matter and dark energy and the evolution of the Milky
Way galaxy. But what is the importance of finding Planet Nine?

Dr. Brown tells Universe Today, “This would be the 5th
largest planet of our solar system and the only one with a mass between
Earth and Uranus. Such planets are common around other stars, and we
would suddenly have a chance to study one in our own solar system.”

Scientists began hypothesizing the existence of Planet Nine shortly
after the discovery of Neptune in 1846, including an 1880 memoir
authored by D. Kirkwood and later a 1946 paper authored by American
astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh, who was responsible for discovering Pluto in
1930.

More recent studies include studies from 2016 and 2017 presenting
evidence for the existence of Planet Nine, the former of which was
co-authored by Dr. Brown.

This most recent study marks the
most complete investigation of narrowing down the location of Planet
Nine, which Dr. Brown has long-believed exists, telling Universe Today,
“There are too many separate signs that Planet Nine is there. The solar
system is very difficult to understand without Planet Nine.”

He continues by telling Universe Today that “…Planet Nine explains
many things about orbits of objects in the outer solar system that would
be otherwise unexplainable and would each need some sort of separate
explanation.”

“The cluster of the directions of the orbits is the best know, but
there is also the large perihelion distances of many objects, existence
of highly inclined and even retrograde objects, and the high abundance
of very eccentric orbits which cross inside the orbit of Neptune. None
of these should happen in the solar system, but all are easily
explainable as an effect of Planet Nine.”

More information:
Michael E. Brown et al, A Pan-STARRS1 Search for Planet Nine, arXiv (2024). DOI: 10.48550/arxiv.2401.17977

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Space

‘October Surprise’: Russia To Launch Nukes in Space

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The ‘national security threat’ announced on Wednesday is
about Russia planning to launch nuclear weapons in space, causing some
to speculate whether it’s really an election year ploy.

The panic began when House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner
(R-Ohio) asked President Biden to declassify information about a
“serious national security threat”.

Modernity.news reports: The weapon would reportedly be designed to be used to take out satellites.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) responded by telling reporters he wanted “to assure the American people, there is no need for public alarm.”

The big, scary threat is serious business and involves a space-based nuke controlled by evil dictator Putin, but it’s also “not an immediate crisis,” according to what three members of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee have told Politico.

Okay, then. Just for election season, is it?

Zero Hedge reports: “So, the question is – was this:

a) a distraction from Biden’s broken brain, or

2) a last desperate attempt to get more funding for anything-but-the-US-border, or

iii) a path to pitching Putin as the uber-bad-guy again after his interview with Tucker Carlson.”

Just by coincidence, Mike Turner recently returned from Ukraine having lobbied for billions more in weapons and aid for Zelensky’s government.

Some questioned the timing, suggesting it might all be a deep state plot to keep American voters afraid when they hit the ballot box.

Speculation will now rage as to whether this is “the event,” real or imagined, that billionaires and elitists the world over have been building underground survival bunkers in preparation for.

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