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Plasma Technology Could be the Key to Mars Making Its Own Oxygen

19 October 2017

Plasma technology could be the key to creating a sustainable oxygen supply on Mars. This could mean that living on Mars is becoming more possible.

Researchers have suggested the Mars’s 96 percent carbon dioxide atmosphere has close to ideal conditions for creating oxygen from CO2 through a process called decomposition.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope took the picture of Mars on June 26, 2001 (NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team)NASA's Hubble Space Telescope took the picture of Mars on June 26, 2001 (NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team)

The research by the University of Lisbon, University of Porto and École Polytechnique in Paris, shows that the pressure and temperature ranges in the Martian atmosphere mean non-thermal plasma (or non-equilibrium plasma) can be used to produce oxygen efficiently.

"Sending a manned mission to Mars is one of the next major steps in our exploration of space. Creating a breathable environment, however, is a substantial challenge," said the lead author of the paper on this research Dr. Vasco Guerra, from the University of Lisbon.

"Plasma reforming of CO2 on Earth is a growing field of research, prompted by the problems of climate change and production of solar fuels. Low-temperature plasmas are one of the best media for CO2 decomposition - the split-up of the molecule into oxygen and carbon monoxide - both by direct electron impact and by transferring electron energy into vibrational excitation."

Mars has good conditions for In-Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) by plasma. As well as its CO2 atmosphere, the cold surrounding atmosphere, which is on average about 210 Kelvin, may induce stronger vibrational effect that is achievable on Earth. The low atmospheric temperature also works to slow the reaction, giving additional time for the separation of molecules.

“The low-temperature plasma decomposition method offers a twofold solution for a manned mission to Mars. Not only would it provide a stable, reliable supply of oxygen, but as source of fuel as well, as carbon monoxide has been proposed as to be used as a propellant mixture in rocket vehicles," said Dr. Guerra. "This ISRU approach could help significantly simplify the logistics of a mission to Mars. It would allow for increased self-sufficiency, reduce the risks to the crew, and reduce costs by requiring fewer vehicles to carry out the mission."

The paper on this research was published today in Plasma Sources Science and Technology.

To contact the author of this article, email Siobhan.Treacy@ieeeglobalspec.com


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