Space

New space race aims at creating breathable air on Mars

New space race aims at creatin...
Mars One's vision of a Martian base
Mars One's vision of a Martian base
View 4 Images
The Helena Payload Project hopes to make oxygen from water trapped in Martian soil
1/4
The Helena Payload Project hopes to make oxygen from water trapped in Martian soil
The Helena Payload Project hopes to make oxygen from water trapped in Martian soil
2/4
The Helena Payload Project hopes to make oxygen from water trapped in Martian soil
Mars One's vision of a Martian base
3/4
Mars One's vision of a Martian base
MIT's MOXIE will be part of the Mars 2020 rover
4/4
MIT's MOXIE will be part of the Mars 2020 rover
View gallery - 4 images

The race to reach Mars is more like a decades-long marathon, but in the short term the latest space race involves inventing ways that might make setting up shop on the Red Planet possible. In the past few months alone, three teams have unveiled their visions of how humans might breathe on the fourth planet from the sun.

NASA hopes to conduct a manned mission to the Red Planet, but probably not until the mid-2030s. Meanwhile, SpaceX and Mars One are talking about making the trip in under 10 years from now. Whenever it is, establishing any kind of presence on Mars is going to require some new innovations just to deliver basic life support for anyone looking to stay for any extended duration.

Students from the University of Western Australia and Mars One astronaut candidate Josh Richards are finalists in the Mars One University competition, which would send key experiments to the surface of Mars in 2018. Mars One is a non-profit that has used a contest and media-centric approach to fund a one-way manned mission to establish a base on Mars, as soon as the mid-2020s.

The team, which calls its effort the "Helena Payload Project," hopes to demonstrate its method of extracting water from Martian soil and using electrolysis to produce breathable air.

The Helena Payload Project hopes to make oxygen from water trapped in Martian soil
The Helena Payload Project hopes to make oxygen from water trapped in Martian soil

The Australian team will be competing with another finalist team dubbed the Cyano Knights, who hope to show that oxygen can be produced on Mars using cyanobacteria to change a small amount of Mars' 95 percent carbon dioxide atmosphere into oxygen.

"Our experiment will hopefully pave the way to ensure the survival of the elected astronauts on the Red Planet, as we attempt to produce oxygen from Martian resources," said UWA engineering student and Helena co-lead, Andre Van Vulpen.

The two student concepts join MIT's Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment (MOXIE), which was selected earlier this year for inclusion on board NASA's Mars 2020 rover.

MOXIE is similar to Helena's approach, using solid oxide electrolysis to peel oxygen off of carbon dioxide, splitting it into O2 and carbon monoxide. Check out Gizmag's earlier coverage of MOXIE for more on how the concept works.

Naturally, the stakes are a little higher for the Mars One teams, who are looking to test technologies that could generate molecules to be inhaled by real humans in the next 10-12 years, whereas MOXIE will just be conducting experiments aboard a robot.

MIT's MOXIE will be part of the Mars 2020 rover
MIT's MOXIE will be part of the Mars 2020 rover

Somewhat ironically, another team of MIT students also called the viability of the Mars One plan into question this year, including major concerns over managing the vital supply of oxygen on a Martian base.

Regardless of how soon we might actually see humans breathing on the surface of Mars, the odds seem good that we will at least be creating breathable air there within the next 5 – 10 years.

Sources: Mars One, University of Western Australia

View gallery - 4 images
19 comments
Ed Wapole
Terraforming Mars is a big job. The way to do it is to go to Saturn's rings and redirect tens of thousands of frozen gas icebergs to slam into Mars. It would be best to get started on that before too many people move to Mars.
alien678
Sweet... but how about cleaning up the current mess we have made of te rock we are on, right now!
Neil Farbstein
you mean frozen water icebergs? they can split the water to make oxygen.
ezeflyer
Maybe we can use methods of splitting CO2 on Earth to stop global warming.
boomer
Why not do a "Star Trek" move and send a probe to inject bacteria into the Mars atmosphere? A bacteria that multiplies and thrives in the thin Martian air and eventually creates the needed atmosphere suitable for earthlings. It might prove cheaper and faster than hauling machinery to Mars to Terra- form the atmosphere...
GoForward
These are interesting ideas, but what about using plants in constructed greenhouse biospheres? Mars' air, which is rich in CO2, could be pumped into the biospheres, and oxygen generated from the plants would then be pumped out to the human-habitable areas of the constructed dwellings.
Excess CO2 from the human-habitable areas could be pumped back into the biospheres. Any excess oxygen could be pumped into Mars' atmosphere, which would result in a gradual change of the atmospheric composition.
VirtualGathis
@Ed Wapole - Who said anything about terraforming? This projects sole purpose is to leverage in situ resources to produce life support for human colonization. Terraforming is a multi-generational project that will require space capability we are nowhere near accomplishing in the next 15-20 years.
I like the Cyano Knights approach to using cyanobacteria. If they use the spirulina genus it will also produce food as spirulina is edible with minimal processing. So essentially the the machines collect available water, put it in pressurized photo-bio-reactors, colonists feed the tanks with poop, and CO2 gets bubbled through. The colony then gets oxygen and food.
Harriet Russell
I like the Cyano approach, too. Besides all the advantages cited by VirtualGathis, it avoids adding carbon monoxide to the atmosphere.
Bob Komarek
I still do not understand why we are skipping the Moon. Cold fusion is already on the brink of being developed. The moon is the place to go for abundant H3. It's also obviously less hostile than mars, and much closer. Makes zero sense to me.
Abby Normal
what is the use of having breathable air if one cannot have exposed skin due to UV radiation? one has to be protected by a space suit in any case.