Plasma breakthrough indicates a human Mars mission could make its own oxygen

Mars' atmosphere is almost entirely carbon dioxide. But a new study indicates that a human mission to Mars could use plasma to convert the carbon dioxide into enough breathable oxygen to survive, along with a byproduct that can be used as rocket fuel.
By Rick Docksai | Oct 19, 2017
A human mission to Mars may have just gotten a little more feasible, following a new European study of the Martian atmosphere. The study, published Wednesday in the journal Plasma Sources Science in Technology, indicated that a spacecraft could convert plasma in the atmosphere into enough oxygen to sustain a human crew indefinitely.

Mars' atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide. But a process called decomposition can break carbon dioxide down into its composites: oxygen and carbon monoxide. Decomposition needs electrons from another substance to collide with the carbon dioxide particles and set off a "vibrational effect" that destabilizes them, according to the study authors, who are from the universities of Lisbon and Porto and the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.

Decomposition occurs more easily in very cold temperatures, which are the norm on Mars, the researchers said. More vibrational effect occurs in extreme cold, they explained.

They also found that plasma is an especially effective source of electrons for decomposition. A human crew that brings some plasma on-board as a decomposition medium could use the plasma to decompose the Martian air and get as much oxygen as they need, they suggested.

Humans can't breathe carbon dioxide, of course. But Vasco Guerra, University of Lisbon professor and the study's lead author, noted that the carbon monoxide could provide fuel for the mission's rocket vehicles.

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

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