September 29, 2009

Device extracts soil oxygen in low gravity

NASA and Case Western Reserve University scientists say they're developing a device that can extract oxygen from lunar low-gravity soil.

The researchers are designing and testing components of an oxygen generator that would extract the element from silicon dioxide and metal oxides in the ground. They have designed sifters needed to produce a consistent supply of oxides, but were uncertain how they would work in the moon's gravity, which is about one-sixth as strong as the Earth's?

To find out, Case Western civil engineering student Katie Fromwiller and Assistant Professor Julie Kleinhenz spent two days flying in high arcs off the Texas coast last month.

This was Fromwiller's first trip on the NASA plane, which space researchers refer to as the vomit comet. Inside the plane, the pull of gravity approximated the moon's weak gravity during the rapid drop in each arc.

It was as if they were working on the moon, 20 seconds at a time, said Professor David Zeng, one of the principal investigators of the study.

NASA engineers were testing other components of the oxygen generator on the same flight.

Zeng and his team are continuing to analyze data produced over the two days. Ultimately, NASA will decide which kind of device to use in the oxygen generator.