Sunday, January 28, 2018

Plasma Technology Could Help Produce a Sustainable Oxygen Supply for Human Colonies on Mars

Artist's concept of a manned mission to Mars. Image Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

It is obvious that a future human colony on Mars will need a sustainable oxygen supply for its operations in the harsh Martian environment. A new research conducted by a team of Portuguese-French scientists suggests that plasma technology could be the key to producing a necessary amount of oxygen for human activities on the Red Planet.

The group of researchers, led by Vasco Guerra of the University of Lisbon in Portugal, has published a study in the journal Plasma Sources Science and Technology, in which they claim that plasma can be used to produce oxygen efficiently on Mars. This is due to the fact that the Red Planet, with its carbon dioxide atmosphere, has excellent conditions for creating oxygen through a process known as decomposition.

“Our main conclusion is precisely that Mars has nearly ideal conditions for creating oxygen from carbon dioxide by non-thermal plasmas,” Guerra told Astrowatch.net.

Martian atmosphere is almost entirely composed of carbon dioxide (about 95.9 percent), while the rest consists of argon (1.9 percent), nitrogen (1.9 percent), as well as traces of free oxygen, carbon monoxide, water and methane, among other gases. The abundance of carbon dioxide, which could be converted into oxygen and carbon monoxide, the cold surrounding atmosphere (about -82 degrees Fahrenheit on average) and low atmospheric temperature make the Red Planet a suitable place for the so-called In-Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) by plasma.

“The pressure and temperature ranges in the about 96 percent carbon dioxide Martian atmosphere favor the vibrational excitation and subsequent up-pumping of the asymmetric stretching mode, which is believed to be a key factor for an efficient plasma dissociation, at the expense of the excitation of the other modes,” Guerra and his colleagues wrote in the journal Plasma Sources Science and Technology.

Guerra underlines that the low temperature plasma decomposition method would not only provide a stable, reliable supply of oxygen, but would also deliver sufficient amounts of carbon monoxide, which could be used as a propellant mixture in rocket vehicles.

“Carbon dioxide decomposition can provide oxygen for breathing and contribute to the production of fuels to be used on the return trip to Earth,” Guerra noted.

Producing oxygen in-situ on Mars could be invaluable for reducing costs and logistics of human presence on the Red Planet. For instance, if a future Martian colony could be self-sufficient in oxygen supply it would diminish the needs of additional costly launches from Earth to deliver supplies. Moreover, it would allow the spacecraft to be less massive what could improve the spacecraft’s other parameters, improving the safety of astronauts.

While Guerra’s study presents the feasibility of the plasma decomposition method that could be essential for the production of oxygen on Mars, still more research and time is needed to implement the technology.

“Assuming we have the means to keep developing the technology, a time frame of about five years to have it ready seems realistic. Then we would need to add the time to prepare an actual mission,” Guerra said.

He concluded that his team now plans to finish the scientific studies, develop and optimize the system. They also eye the development of a small scale prototype that could test their method on Mars.

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