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How Will Astronauts Breathe on Mars?

Astronauts on Mars will rely on life support systems that extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is mostly carbon dioxide. Advanced technologies may also split water into oxygen and hydrogen for breathable air. These innovative methods promise a sustainable living environment on the Red Planet. Wondering about the science behind these systems? Let's examine how they'll sustain human life millions of miles from Earth.

If NASA succeeds in its ambitions for the Artemis program, a human presence on Mars could be a reality within the next few decades. China's space agency and private entrepreneurs like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have hinted at doing it even sooner. Yet there are countless challenges that will need to be solved before any intrepid men and women set foot on the Red Planet. There's the lengthy journey (around 8 months), the freezing temperatures, and the lack of food and water.

One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of a breathable atmosphere. Oxygen would be needed not only for the astronauts' habitat and space suit tanks but also as an essential component of the rocket fuel required for the journey home to Earth. Sending all of that oxygen to Mars would be extremely costly and complex.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

There's a long way to go, but MIT researchers have taken the first step toward turning the abundant carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. A toaster-size device on NASA's Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021, has passed a number of tests in various conditions (daytime, nighttime, and different seasons). The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) is able to produce 6 grams of oxygen per hour – about as much as a small tree on our planet.

Take a deep breath:

  • If MOXIE's technology has any hope of sustaining human life on Mars, its output will need to be increased by several hundred times – to over 4.5 pounds (2 kg) per hour. It would also need to guarantee to run continuously.

  • Mars' atmosphere is roughly 96% carbon dioxide.

  • MOXIE's successful production of oxygen is a major milestone. It's the first time that another planet's natural resources (in this case, carbon dioxide) have been converted into something that could assist human space missions.

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