NASA’s plan to use bacteria to produce oxygen on Mars

If all goes according to plan, the Mars 2020 will carry small canisters to the Red Planet designed to test the ability of bacteria to turn the raw materials available there can be used to make oxygen for human visitors. Being able to create oxygen there, would provide a considerable cost-savings to NASA. It would also allow for longer human visits to Mars than would be possible if astronauts have to bring their own air.

Today, through its Flickr account, Space X released a series of imaginative poster size images advertising colonization and tourism on Mars. The images are part hope for the future and part science fiction.

Before humans can live on Mars for even a brief period of time, many questions need to be answered and problems need to be solved. The Martian climate isn’t exactly tourist friendly at the moment.

The Martian atmosphere is about 100 times thinner than the Earth’s and is made up of 95 percent carbon dioxide and only about 0.13 percent oxygen. Temperatures on Mars vary by location and season, ranging from minus 195 degrees Fahrenheit to about plus 70 degrees. The average temperature, however, is about 80 below zero. Mars also has the most intense wind storms known to exist in the solar system, kicking up clouds of oxidized iron dust (better known as rust).

In short it’s a bit like a trip to a cold, dusty, oxygen free version of Earth’s Arctic region.

Any long term human presence on Mars will require a bit of “ecopoiesis”, according to a statement from NASA.

Ecopoiesis, is a stage in terraforming which refers to the creation of an ecosystem capable of supporting life. While no one, at this stage, is seriously talking about doing this planet-wide on Mars, it will be necessary in at least some isolated, contained areas.

The first small step in this is being tested by biologist and engineer, Eugene Boland, chief scientist at Techshot Inc. of Greenville, Indiana. Techshot has created a “Mars room” which is capable of simulating the planet’s solar radiation, atmospheric pressure and temperature swings.

The team is testing “pioneer organisms” capable of building a human-suitable ecosystem using material on the Martian surface.

“This is a possible way to support a human mission to Mars, producing oxygen without having to send heavy gas canisters. Let’s send microbes and let them do the heavy-lifting for us,” said Boland.

If the process proves to be successful, then biodomes to contain the oxygen and protect it from the martian atmosphere could be created.

Boland and his team hope that their test bed gear can be carried on a future rover which would plant small containers at selected sites. These canisters, containing Earth organisms, primarily extremophiles, would interact only with soil captured within the canister.

The canisters would be constructed so that they did not otherwise interact with the Martian atmosphere and would report the presence or absence of oxygen back to Earth via satellite relay.

After recent results from the Curiosity rover show the possibility of small amounts of brackish water on the surface, the canisters may also test for the ability to produce water and nitrogen.


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