Chinese scientists find a way to produce oxygen from water on Mars
Manned missions could of course carry oxygen or oxygen-producing materials from Earth to breathe and use as rocket fuel. But space agencies have long sought a way to harness readily available resources on the Red Planet to support astronauts traveling there.
Fortunately, a team of scientists in China say they have found a way to do just that.
Researchers have developed an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered robotic chemist that demonstrates the ability to extract oxygen from water on Mars. The results of the team’s study were published last week in the journal Nature Synthesis.
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The robot finds a way to cause an oxygen-producing chemical reaction on Mars
Although the Martian atmosphere contains only trace amounts of oxygen, scientists have discovered in multiple studies significant amounts of water on the planet, much of it ice.
In order to create breathable air, researchers led by Jun Jiang of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei wanted to find a way to break down Martian water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Most importantly, scientists wanted to achieve this in a way that only uses materials already found on the red planet, according to a press release.
An AI-powered “robotic chemist” used a machine learning model to find a compound known as a catalyst that could cause a chemical reaction that produces oxygen on Mars.
The robot first used an acid and chemical mixture to analyze five meteorites that either came from Mars or had a composition similar to that of the Martian surface. Using a laser to scan materials, the robot detected iron, nickel, calcium, magnesium, aluminum and manganese in the rocks.
From these six elements, an algorithm determined that the robot could produce more than 3.7 million molecules to break down water and release oxygen on Mars. The catalyst chosen as the most suitable can operate at -37°C, similar to Martian conditions.
Because the catalyst is made entirely of elements found in meteorites, such a system, when working reliably, could spare astronauts bringing their own oxygen or the materials needed to produce it.
Even more impressive? In six weeks, the robot produced scientific results through a process that the team said would take a human researcher 2,000 years.
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This process is not the only way to produce breathable air on Mars.
In September, NASA’s MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) experiment successfully demonstrated the production of oxygen from Martian air heavy with carbon dioxide. MOXIE is located aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021, and could be used to produce oxygen for astronauts during future missions to the planet.
NASA has sent a group of landers, orbiters and remotely operated rovers to study Mars and bring back geological samples. Although no human foot has set foot on this planet, this may change.
NASA has resumed lunar missions for the first time in decades through its Artemis program, and in 2025 plans to send astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972. Once there, NASA hopes to establish a permanent human presence on and around the Moon as a base of operations from Sort of for future missions to Mars.
Eric Lagata covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org