Establishing and maintaining a permanent human presence on Mars promises to be one of the most technologically challenging ventures ever undertaken by our species. A key aspect of the endeavor is to create an environment in which human beings can survive and flourish – this requires a ready supply of oxygen. NASA is working with Indiana-based company Techshot Inc. in order to develop a solution with the potential to produce an abundant source of oxygen with minimal assistance from Earth.
Working from the company's "Mars room," which plays host to a test chamber capable of emulating the inhospitable conditions prevailing on the Red Planet, chief scientist Eugene Boland is exploring the potential of using ecosystem-building pioneer organisms such as bacteria or algae as oxygen factories. The organisms would use Mars' ample supply of regolith as fuel, and may even serve a dual purpose in removing nitrogen from the Martian soil.
Such research is a vital aspect to any serious attempt to create an outpost on Mars. Any colony established on the Red Planet would be isolated from the homeworld by roughly 140 million miles (225.3 million km), with the average time between re-supply missions expected to be around 500 days. Furthermore cargo mass has to be factored into the equation, and NASA would be keen to free up as much space as possible by doing away with the need to transport oxygen and other gasses.
"This is a possible way to support a human mission to Mars, producing oxygen without having to send heavy gas canisters," states Boland. "Let’s send microbes and let them do the heavy-lifting for us."
For the first test, Boland and his team expect to see their research touch down on the Red Planet in a rover carrying an experimental test bed housing extremophile organisms such as cyanobacteria. The container would be drilled into the Martian surface, capturing a sample of alien soil in the process. As the specimens proceed to interact with the soil, the capsule will analyze the sealed environment for signs of oxygen or other metabolic products, transmitting its findings back to Earth via a Mars-orbiting satellite.
If subsequent experiments are met with success, we may one day see biodomes filled with the results of Boland's research mottling the surface of Mars, providing the nourishing oxygen necessary for humanity to make those historic first steps on Martian soil.