If humankind is ever to step foot on Mars, they’ll need a bountiful source of oxygen.
Crewed missions could of course lug their own oxygen or oxygen-producing materials with them from Earth both to breathe and use as rocket fuel. But space agencies have long sought to find a way to harness the resources readily available on the red planet to sustain spacefarers who travel there.
Fortunately, a team of scientists in China say they have found a way to do just that.
The researchers developed a robotic chemist powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that shows the ability to extract oxygen from water on Mars. The results of the team’s study were published last week in the journal “Nature Synthesis.”
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Robot finds way to cause oxygen-producing chemical reaction on Mars
Though Mars’ atmosphere contains only trace amounts of oxygen, scientists have in multiple studies detected large amounts of water on the planet, most of which is ice.
In order to create breathable air, the researchers led by Jun Jiang at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei wanted to find a way to break down Mars’ water into its hydrogen and oxygen molecules. More importantly, the scientists wanted to accomplish this in a way that would only use materials already found on the red planet, according to a press release.
The AI-powered “robot chemist” used a machine learning model to find a compound known as a catalyst that could cause an oxygen-producing chemical reaction on Mars.
The robot first used an acid and chemical mixture to analyze five meteorites that either came from Mars or had a composition similar to that of the Martian surface. Using a laser to scan the materials, the robot detected elements of iron, nickel, calcium, magnesium, aluminum and manganese in the rocks.
From these six elements, an algorithm determined the robot could produce more than 3.7 million molecules to break down water and release oxygen on Mars. The catalyst chosen as the best fit can operate at -37 degrees Celsius, similar to Martian conditions.
Because the catalyst is made entirely of elements found in the meteorites, such a system, when working reliably, could spare space travelers from bringing their own oxygen or materials needed to produce it.
Even more impressive? In six weeks, the robot produced the scientific results through a process that the team said would have taken a human researcher 2,000 years.
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The process is not the only way to produce breathable air on Mars.
In September, NASA’s MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) successfully demonstrated the production of oxygen from Mars’ Carbon dioxide-heavy air. Located aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover that landed in 2021 on Mars in February 2021, MOXIE could be used to produce oxygen for astronauts during future missions to the planet.
NASA has sent a host of remotely-operated landers, orbiters and rovers to study Mars and bring back geologic samples. While no humans have set foot on the planet, that could change.
NASA has resumed lunar missions for the first time in decades with its Artemis program and plans in 2025 to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since 1972. Once there, NASA hopes to establish a permanent human presence on and around the moon to serve as a base of operations of sorts for future missions to Mars.
Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org