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Oxygen from moondust is worth a mint

May 20, 2005 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

NASA offers prize for turning lunar rock into vital gas.

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How do you fancy winning a cool quarter-of-a-million dollars? That's the prize on offer for the astronomical alchemist who can create breathable oxygen from moondust.

The competition, unveiled this week by NASA and the Florida Space Research Institute, is an attempt to stimulate research into technologies that might help humans to colonize other worlds. Although the prize won't quite allow the winner to breathe easily for life, the organizers hope that the hefty sum will tempt some talented chemical engineers.

The rules are simple. Entrants must build a device, within certain weight and power limits, that can extract at least five kilograms of oxygen from a sample of volcanic ash (a substitute for lunar soil) in the space of eight hours. The first team to build and demonstrate such a gadget before 1 June 2008 will claim the cash.

The challenge is called MoonROx, for Moon Regolith Oxygen (the regolith being the layer of loose rubble on a planet or moon's surface). It is the latest in NASA's Centennial Challenges series. Other prizes up for grabs include an award for designing an efficient 'space elevator' for ferrying satellites quickly into orbit.

Obviously, a sustainable source of oxygen is an essential if humankind is to realize US President George W. Bush's much-publicized vision of building a manned base on the Moon. And where better to get it than from the Moon itself?

"The use of resources on other worlds is a key element of the vision for space exploration," says Craig Steidle, director of NASA's exploration office. "This challenge will reach out to inventors who can help us to achieve the vision sooner."

The successful device will need to wrestle oxygen atoms from the silica and other minerals that form the majority of volcanic and lunar rock. Heating is unlikely to work, as volcanic rocks have already been forged in the Earth's fiery mantle, so competition entrants may consider using an electric current to separate negatively charged oxygen from the positive ions to which it is bound.

Reach for the stars

The idea of offering cash prizes to spur space research has proved fruitful in the past. In October last year, the crew behind SpaceShipOne scooped a $10-million booty from the X-Prize Foundation after it became the first privately built craft to complete two successful journeys beyond Earth's atmosphere.

NASA is keenly following suit in its devotion to prize-led research. "The innovations from this competition will help support long-duration human and robotic exploration of the Moon and other worlds," says Brant Sponberg, head of the Centennial Challenges programme.

Indeed, those with an eye for history will note that NASA arguably owes its very existence to prize competitions, albeit ones from across the pond. In 1914, Albert F. Zahm, head of the Smithsonian aeronautical laboratory, noted with alarm the difference between the vitality of Europe's prize-sponsored aviation research and the United States own apathetic efforts. His comments led to the formation of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA.


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