Space

NASA-funded research seeks to produce breathable oxygen on Mars

NASA-funded research seeks to ...
In the future, the fruit of the research could allow for the creation of manned colonies on Mars (Image: NASA)
In the future, the fruit of the research could allow for the creation of manned colonies on Mars (Image: NASA)
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In the future, the fruit of the research could allow for the creation of manned colonies on Mars (Image: NASA)
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In the future, the fruit of the research could allow for the creation of manned colonies on Mars (Image: NASA)
The test chamber located in Techshot Inc.'s Mars room (Photo: NASA/Techshot Inc.)
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The test chamber located in Techshot Inc.'s Mars room (Photo: NASA/Techshot Inc.)

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 thecompany's "Mars room," which plays host to a test chambercapable of emulating the inhospitable conditions prevailing on the Red Planet, chief scientist Eugene Boland is exploring the potentialof using ecosystem-building pioneer organisms such as bacteria oralgae as oxygen factories. The organisms would use Mars' ample supplyof regolith as fuel, andmay even serve a dual purpose in removing nitrogen from the Martiansoil.

The test chamber located in Techshot Inc.'s Mars room (Photo: NASA/Techshot Inc.)
The test chamber located in Techshot Inc.'s Mars room (Photo: NASA/Techshot Inc.)

Such research is avital aspect to any serious attempt to create an outpost on Mars. Anycolony established on the Red Planet would be isolated from thehomeworld by roughly 140 million miles (225.3 million km), with theaverage time between re-supply missions expected to be around 500days. Furthermore cargo mass has to be factored into the equation,and NASA would be keen to free up as much space as possible by doingaway with the need to transport oxygen and other gasses.

"This is a possibleway to support a human mission to Mars, producing oxygen withouthaving to send heavy gas canisters," states Boland. "Let’s sendmicrobes 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 housingextremophile organisms such as cyanobacteria. Thecontainer would be drilled into the Martian surface, capturing asample of alien soil in the process. As the specimens proceed tointeract with the soil, the capsule will analyze the sealedenvironment for signs of oxygen or other metabolic products,transmitting its findings back to Earth via a Mars-orbitingsatellite.

If subsequentexperiments are met with success, we may one day see biodomes filledwith the results of Boland's research mottling the surface of Mars,providing the nourishing oxygen necessary for humanity to make thosehistoric first steps on Martian soil.

Source: NASA

7 comments
BobMonteleone
What a gross waste of taxpayer money. Instead of that boondoggle with virtually NO ROI, why don't the geniuses figure how how to modify weather here on earth? Make it rain in California and a few other drought prone regions around the world. We desperately need that kind of advance here, NOT MARS! And, if the taxpayers are paying for it then the money should be spent where it will do the most good. If people want to go to Mars generate oxygen, find water or mine unobtainium, then fine, do it with private funding. Give Elon Musk a call but don't use taxpayer money for such a wild shot in the dark.
Frosted Flake
Bob Monteleone is the worst sort of idiot. No ROI? An entire PLANET, for Steves sake. Bob is just upset that 'his taxpayer money' is spent on something that isn't 'his'.
That being said, I have a question for the geniuses. How are you going to keep that O2 from going where the rest of it went, off into space on the Solar Wind? You need a magnetosphere to protect the planet. That is a MAJOR industrial project that must be conducted in space, using materials mined in space.
By a staggering coincidence, there are two asteroids circling the planet, ripe for mining. Bonus, mining creates rubble. Which must be safely disposed of. By dumping it on a planet. And this will create gasses that will reinforce the atmosphere. An absolute necessity, as the Martial air is only about a millibar thick.
So. How about spending some time thinking about remote control mining on Phobos? How about spending some time thinking about how to make planet sized magnets, and about delivering them where they need to go?
HarryKeller
Yes Frosted, Bob is mistaken in his analysis, but is entitled to his opinion. I imagine that much more resources are being applied to fixing Earth problems than to Mars. It's just that the latter are more headline worthy.
Nevertheless, to me the cyanobacteria approach is ridiculous. Here are reasons.
1. The surface of Mars is bombarded by UV, cosmic, and solar radiation that will destroy any microbes on the surface.
2. Cyanobacteria convert sunlight, CO2, and inorganic substances into oxygen and organic substances. The partial pressure of CO2 is plenty high. However, to get sunlight, you must be on the radiated surface.
3. Mars is dessicated for the first meter or so of depth, except in a few isolated locations. Water is necessary for the cyanobacteria to grow.
4. It took tens of millions of years for cyanobacteria on Earth to generate oxygen in a very favorable environment. We cannot wait that long.
So, I agree with Bob that we are wasting money but for very different reasons.
For the 411 on living on Mars, see the article and conversation at ETCJournal (.com) about Mars One.
For a solution to oxygen on Mars, read Mars Rhapsody.
The solar wind today is about 100 times less than in the time that Mars lost its atmosphere. Even were it not so, it would take millions of years to blow away O2 generated on Mars. It's a slow process but no so slow when compared with a planetary lifetime of billions of years. We do not require a magnetosphere for the O2. However, it would be nice for protecting colonists from solar and cosmic rays. Instead, we'll have to rely on burying habitats under meters of regolith and, eventually, on local magnetic fields.
No one talks much about gravity. At 38% of Earth, Mars has a rather low gravity. Will this low gravity be beneficial or injurious to human health? No one knows. Right now, NASA is spending a ton of money to have an astronaut spend a year on the ISS. It would be much more valuable to have that time spent in a spinning satellite at 38% of Earth gravity.
We already know that zero g is harmful to people. We know that 100% is okay but does lead to all sorts of problems if we live long enough. It's likely that 90% would be good, but we don't know about 38%. What if it cut our life expectancies in half? What if it increased them by 20%?
There's much more to learn, and we can learn much of it on Earth and in low-Earth orbit. Don't send useless experiments to Mars. Read Mars Rhapsody to enjoy a novel about the real science of living on Mars.
frogola
i believe there talking about canistering the oxygen for use by astronauts. and, that could be used anywhere there is regolith. so that makes it is a good next step for landing something on mars.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
The magnetosphere protects low Earth orbit. The atmosphere protects the ground.
Emmett Brown
Sounds promising, but you're not getting all this done by 2050. So, the first go-round is going to be on bottled air, and resupply for the first several centuries is likely to be likewise. And, probably the most practical way of making the magic happen, is going to be by shipping water to the surface of Mars from orbit. Or, someone gets lucky with a pickaxe, and finds a massively massive frozen underground lake of near-pure H20. Maybe. Chances are, there's going to be steady resupply, what amount to 'water balloons' being hurled at Mars from Earth, and possibly the Moon or the asteroid belt. Might snag a passing comet and cut chunks out of it.
How much free-flying ice is believed to be lingering in the asteroid belt? Want to think about that problem, along with the rest of the asteroid mining idea...
StraitsTimes
Why don't they send a lab first with some goats n lotsa weeds in the lab where solar winds cant get in.just open the vents to let in co2.after a couple of years....there will be a herd of goats n a jungle taking co2 n converting to oxygen.