Astronauts Might End Up Making Their Own Oxygen On Mars

Artist's impression of a capsule approaching Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

When it comes to space travel, there’s a simple rule. If you didn’t bring it with you, you need to make it there. This usually refers to building material but it might soon apply to oxygen too.

In a study published in Plasma Sources Science and Technology, Portuguese and French researchers showed that both the temperature and pressure of the Martian atmosphere are good enough to efficiently produce oxygen. Astronauts would use nonthermal plasma to break down carbon dioxide, which makes up most of the Red Planet's atmosphere.

“Plasma reforming of CO2 on Earth is a growing field of research, prompted by the problems of climate change and production of solar fuels,” lead author Dr Vasco Guerra, from the University of Lisbon, said in a statement. “Low-temperature plasmas are one of the best media for CO2 decomposition – the split-up of the molecule into oxygen and carbon monoxide – both by direct electron impact, and by transferring electron energy into vibrational excitation.”

Mars' atmosphere is 1 percent as dense as our own with an average temperature of -60°C (-76°F). This might seem like a hindrance for this CO2 conversion at first but these conditions are actually an advantage. 

“The low-temperature plasma decomposition method offers a twofold solution for a manned mission to Mars. Not only would it provide a stable, reliable supply of oxygen, but a source of fuel as well, as carbon monoxide has been proposed as to be used as a propellant mixture in rocket vehicles,” said Guerra.

Making oxygen on location is one of several strategies proposed to make getting to Mars cheaper. This so-called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) hopes to maximize the natural resources found in the local environment.

“This ISRU approach could help significantly simplify the logistics of a mission to Mars. It would allow for increased self-sufficiency, reduce the risks to the crew, and reduce costs by requiring fewer vehicles to carry out the mission,” Guerra added. 

Elon Musk wants to send the first crewed mission in the mid-2020s and NASA’s Journey to Mars is planned for the 2030s. So studies like this could be very important.

 

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