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The first new soil sample from the Moon in decades is helping to lay the groundwork for “extraterrestrial photosynthesis,” a potential pathway toward producing water, oxygen, and fuel using sunlight and the rocky material on the lunar surface, known as regolith, reports a new study. 

The concept is part of an array of emerging research into living off the lunar land, as nations such as the United States and China prepare to send humans to the Moon, and potentially beyond, in the coming decades. In anticipation of these missions, scientists are devising new techniques to use the available materials on alien surfaces for life support, fuel, and infrastructure—a process called in-situ resource utilization (ISRU)—instead of hauling supplies from Earth, which would take up valuable space and weight on crewed spacecraft.

Now, researchers led by Yingfang Yao, a scientist at Nanjing University, have tried out one of these methods on real lunar regolith. The team was able to road-test “a potential strategy to build an ISRU system that can accommodate the extreme lunar environment” using soil returned from the Moon by China’s Chang’e-5 mission which, in December 2020, became the first mission to bring lunar samples back to Earth in more than four decades, according to a study published on Thursday in the journal Joule.

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