While the idea of sending humans to Mars was once limited to science fiction, NASA hopes it could become a reality by the end of the 2030s.
One of the main obstacles standing in the way is a lack of sufficient oxygen on Mars.
However, scientists have invented a new plasma-based technique to produce and separate oxygen in the Martian environment.
In addition to playing a key role in the development of life support systems, the system could also be used to process fuels and make building materials and fertilizers on Mars.
Scientists have invented a new plasma-based technique to produce and separate oxygen in the Martian environment
The system could not only play a key role in the development of life support systems, but could also be used to process fuels and create building materials and fertilizers on Mars.
Four states of matter
In a solid, molecules are packed together and exert strong forces on each other. Molecules have no room to move freely and vibrate in place. A solid retains its shape unless a force acts on it.
When you heat a solid to its melting point, the molecules gain too much energy to stay in the tightly packed structure. The material will melt, leaving you with a liquid.
Heat a liquid past its boiling point and you have a gas. The molecules have completely escaped from each other and the intermolecular forces between them are very small.
A plasma is formed when a hot gas is electrically charged, although it behaves very differently from a gaseous material.
The atmosphere of Mars is mainly made up of carbon dioxide, which can be split to produce oxygen and carbon.
According to researchers from the University of Lisbon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sorbonne University, Eindhoven University of Technology and the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research, two major hurdles stand in the way of oxygen production on Mars.
“First, the decomposition of carbon dioxide molecules to extract oxygen,” said Dr Vasco Guerra of the University of Lisbon, an author of the study.
‘It is a very difficult molecule to break.
‘Secondly, separating the produced oxygen from a gas mixture that also contains carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, for example.
“We take a holistic view of these two steps to solve both challenges at the same time. This is where plasmas can help.”
Plasma is the fourth natural state of matter, next to solids, liquids and gases.
It contains free charge particles such as electrons, which are light and can be easily accelerated to very high energies with electric fields.
“When bullet-like electrons collide with a carbon dioxide molecule, they can directly decompose it or transfer energy to make it vibrate,” said Dr. Guerra.
‘A large part of this energy can be channeled into the breakdown of carbon dioxide.
Mars’ atmosphere is mainly made up of carbon dioxide, which can be split to produce oxygen and carbon
MARS: THE BASIS
Mars is the fourth planet from the sun, with a ‘near-death’ dusty, cold desert world with a very thin atmosphere.
Mars is also a dynamic planet with seasons, polar ice caps, canyons, extinct volcanoes and evidence that it was even more active in the past.
It is one of the most explored planets in the solar system and the only planet sent by humans to explore.
A day on Mars is just over 24 hours and a year is 687 Earth days.
Facts and numbers
Turnaround time: 687 days
Surface: 144.8 million km²
Distance from Zon: 227.9 million km
Gravity: 3,721 m/s²
Ray: 3.389.5 km
moons: Phobos, Deimos
‘Together with our colleagues in France and the Netherlands, we have experimentally demonstrated the validity of these theories.
‘In addition, the heat that is generated in the plasma is also beneficial for the separation of oxygen.’
The oxygen produced through this plasma-based technique may hold the key to creating a breathable environment for settlers.
It can also be used as a starting point for the production of fuels and fertilizers so that settlers can grow crops on the surface of Mars.
Moreover, according to the researchers, the technique could be useful here on Earth.
“By dissociating carbon dioxide molecules to produce green fuels and recycling chemicals, plasma technology could also help tackle climate change on Earth,” a statement added.
The study anticipates NASA’s Artemis I mission, which will launch on Aug. 29, paving the way for future missions to the Moon and Mars.
“Artemis I will be an unmanned flight test that will provide a foundation for human exploration of deep space and demonstrate our commitment and ability to extend human existence to the moon and beyond,” explains NASA.
If the Artemis missions are a success, NASA aims to launch astronauts to Mars by the end of the 2030s or early 2040s.