There is a race to get oxygen to Mars. And we have a new system to achieve it

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The exploration of Mars is going to have to face innumerable problems. The difficulty of carrying basic materials such as oxygen or water is one of the most important. The generation of resources on-site (ISRU) is therefore one of the priorities of the space agencies (and not only on Mars). A new breakthrough that can pave the way in this direction has recently been presented. It is based on using plasmas.


From carbon dioxide to breathable oxygen.
The martian atmosphere It is composed of 96% carbon dioxide (nitrogen and argon are the next most present gases and neither reaches 2%). The Earth’s atmosphere is dominated by nitrogen (just over 78%) and oxygen (20.9%). The Earth’s atmosphere is also noticeably bulkier and, despite being much less dense, it also has more mass.

The advantage of carbon dioxide is that it is possible to extract its oxygen atoms and thus create molecular oxygen (O2) to use as a resource, not only for breathing but also, for example, to fuel rockets. The problem is that this is a difficult task. First of all, because carbon dioxide molecules are very stable, it is difficult to break them apart. Secondly, because it is necessary to separate the oxygen molecules from others such as carbon monoxide.

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Plasma against carbon dioxide..
The team, made up of European and American MIT researchers, has proposed a new mechanism for obtaining this resource on-site on Mars: plasma, the “fourth natural state of matter.” They have done it in an article published in the magazine Journal of Applied Physics. Plasma contains free charged particles such as electrons that can be accelerated to high energies through electric fields.

The atmospheric conditions on the red planet would be ideal for the use of this tool, since its pressure level would favor the ignition of the plasma. The abundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would do the rest.

Overcome two obstacles at once.
The mechanism would be able to overcome the two difficulties of this process, the separation of the CO2 molecule and the separation of molecular oxygen from other gases such as carbon monoxide. In the words of Vasco Guerra, one of the authors of the study “we are looking at these two steps in a holistic way to solve both challenges at the same time. This is where plasmas can help.”

“When electrons collide like bullets against a carbon dioxide molecule, they can break it down directly or transfer energy to it to make it vibrate,” explains Guerra. “This energy can be channeled, to a greater extent, to the decomposition of carbon dioxide. (…) Moreover, the heat generated in the plasma is also beneficial for the separation of oxygen.”

Guerra’s team, together with the French and Dutch researchers, managed to empirically prove that this process can in fact be used to “extract” this oxygen from carbon dioxide.

Complement or competition.
This isn’t the first project trying to extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, and it won’t be the first to reach the red planet either. The rover Perseverance counts among its instruments the MOXIE experiment (Mars Oxygen In Situ Experiment). It uses electrolysis to separate oxygen molecules from carbon dioxide, also creating carbon monoxide in the process.

It is a matter of time to see which technology is more effective and efficient when it comes to taking advantage of the resources offered by the neighboring planet for exploration. Exploration that continues, with more and more agents involved in a new space race whose winners are yet to be determined.

Image | Olivier Guaitella

The exploration of Mars is going to have to face innumerable problems. The difficulty of carrying basic materials such as…

The exploration of Mars is going to have to face innumerable problems. The difficulty of carrying basic materials such as…

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