Plasma technology could supply Mars mission with oxygen

"This ISRU approach could help significantly simplify the logistics of a mission to Mars," researcher Vasco Guerra said.
By Brooks Hays  |  Oct. 18, 2017 at 11:57 AM
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Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Researchers in Portugal and France believe the Martian atmosphere could host plasma technology capable of producing oxygen. A reliable source of oxygen will be essential to any future manned explorations of Mars.

Scientists detailed the potential for Mars-based, oxygen-generating plasma technology in a new paper published in the journal Plasma Sources Science and Technology.

"Sending a manned mission to Mars is one of the next major steps in our exploration of space," Vasco Guerra, researcher at the University of Lisbon, said in a news release. "Creating a breathable environment, however, is a substantial challenge."

On Earth, scientists are working on plasma technologies to split up CO2 into oxygen and carbon monoxide.

"Plasma reforming of CO2 on Earth is a growing field of research, prompted by the problems of climate change and production of solar fuels," Guerra said. "Low temperature plasmas are one of the best media for CO2 decomposition."

The new research suggests some of these the CO2 decomposition technologies could be well-suited for the temperature and pressure conditions on Mars -- particularly In-Situ Resource Utilization, or ISRU.

Plasma-based In-Situ Resource Utilization breaks apart CO2 by converting electron energy into vibrational excitation. Scientists believe the technology would produce a strong vibrational effect in Mars' colder, low-pressure atmosphere. The reaction would also happen slower, allowing more time for CO2 molecules to be split into oxygen and carbon monoxide.

In addition to producing oxygen for astronauts to breath, the technology could also capture carbon monoxide to be used as an additive in rocket fuel.

"This ISRU approach could help significantly simplify the logistics of a mission to Mars," Guerra said. "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."

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