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NASA seeks oxygen source on moon


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(CNN) -- NASA has offered a $250,000 prize to any scientist who discovers a way of extracting breathable oxygen from moondust.

The competition is the latest in NASA's "Centennial Challenges" series, which aims to stimulate the development of technologies useful to space exploration.

To claim the MoonROx prize, scientists must develop and demonstrate hardware capable of extracting at least five kilograms of breathable oxygen from a simulated lunar soil made from volcanic ash in an eight-hour period.

MoonROx stands for Moon Regolith Oxygen -- regolith being the loose layer of rocks and debris covering the surface of a planet or moon.

The MoonROx Challenge was announced by NASA in partnership with the Florida Space Research Institute (FSRI). Entrants have until June 1 2008 to collect the prize fund.

Craig Steidle of NASA's exploration office said that the use of resources on other worlds was a key element in the organization's vision of space exploration.

It hopes the prize could lead to the development of a sustainable source of oxygen that could support permanent lunar bases and provide the fuel for vehicles that will land on and launch from the moon.

Unveiling a new vision of NASA-led space exploration last year, U.S. president George W. Bush said that a moon colony could be used as a "stepping stone" for missions into deeper space.

Bush said the soil of the moon contained "raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air. With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration -- human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond."

While ways of extracting oxygen from regolith already exist, so far nobody has come close to producing the large quantities that would be needed by NASA.

"Oxygen extraction technologies will be critical for both robotic and human missions to the moon," said FSRI Executive Director Sam Durrance, a former astronaut.

"Like other space-focused prize competitions, the MoonROx challenge will encourage a broad community of innovators to develop technologies that expand our current capabilities."

NASA launched the Centennial Challenges in March in the spirit of past competitions that have fostered technical innovation in the aviation and space industries. In October SpaceShipOne claimed the $10 million X-Prize after becoming the first privately funded spacecraft to successfully reach sub-orbital space.

The first two challenges focused on developing technologies towards building a space elevator that could put satellites into orbit.

"For more than 200 years, prizes have played a key role in spurring new achievements in science, technology, engineering and exploration," said NASA's Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, Craig Steidle.

"The innovations from these competitions will help support advances in aerospace materials and structures, new approaches to robotic and human planetary surface operations, and even futuristic concepts like space elevators and solar power satellites."


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