Space & Innovation

Oxygen From Plasma Could Help Astronauts Breathe on Mars

Developing a supply of oxygen on the Red Planet would help sustain a human colony on Mars — and generating it from plasma could be the answer.

If Mars may have been habitable billions of years ago, it certainly isn’t now — not to humans, at least. But developing a supply of oxygen on the Red Planet would go some distance toward sustaining a human colony on Mars. New research suggests that oxygen could be generated through technology using plasma, or ionized gas with a positive or negative electrical charge.

The researchers, who published an article about their work in the journal Plasma Sources Science and Technology, say that we could create oxygen from the cold atmosphere of Mars, which is 96 percent composed of carbon dioxide, through a process called decomposition. This process breaks up the carbon dioxide molecule into oxygen and carbon monoxide.

If astronauts could generate oxygen on site rather than bringing it along with them, it would reduce the mass of equipment leaving Earth. Less mass means that it will cost less to send the mission to space, because mission costs are heavily influenced by the cost of fuel to launch a rocket. The drawback, however, is that the plasma technology is early-stage and will require more testing to make sure it works on Mars.

“Sending a manned mission to Mars is one of the next major steps in our exploration of space,” said lead author Vasco Guerra, a physicist from the University of Lisbon, in a statement. “Creating a breathable environment, however, is a substantial challenge.”

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“Plasma reforming of CO2 [carbon dioxide] on Earth is a growing field of research, prompted by the problems of climate change and production of solar fuels,” he added. “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.”

The scientists propose two methods to decompose the carbon dioxide. The first is by directly impacting electrons of plasma with molecules of carbon dioxide, which breaks carbon dioxide apart into oxygen and carbon monoxide.

The other method is vibrational excitation, or causing the molecule to vibrate until it breaks apart. At Mars, the atmosphere's frigid temperatures (averaging -63 degrees Celsius, or -81 degrees Fahrenheit) slows down the reaction, which gives more time for the molecules to separate.

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It remains unclear how sustainable the oxygen would be once it is generated, and how long it would take to create breathable air in even a small space, such as a crew base.

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

NASA hopes to send a human mission to Mars in the 2030s, while SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is planning to establish a Martian city there in the coming years. While human missions are likely still decades away, a fleet of spacecraft is already orbiting Mars and two rovers are operating on its surface. Both NASA and the European Space Agency plan to send new rovers to Mars in 2020.

These missions are all gathering information on Mars' current climate and in some cases, its radiation and surface conditions.

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