Comets inspire researchers to create breatheable oxygen for humans on Mars

Scientists think this new way of producing oxygen could also help fight climate change on Earth.

Space has forever been a place humans have wanted to explore if the number of movies produced about it is any indication (E.T, Interstellar, Prometheus, Star Trek, Star Wars, Avatar).

While sendings spacecrafts and astronauts to space are fairly mainstream today, breathing in space continues to be a major modern challenge. Molecular oxygen (O2) isn't present on any other planet, according to Caltech, not even in planets with a heavy atmosphere. Astronauts need to carry bulky canisters of oxygen everywhere in space they go. Not only does carrying them into space consume a lot of energy, but oxygen is also highly-flammable and is inherently risky to store in a rocket.

In an experiment inspired by studying comets, Professor Konstantinos P Giapis, a chemical engineering professor at Caltech and fellow researcher Yunxi Yao proposed a chemical reaction that can produce oxygen in space. The findings have been published in a peer-review journal Nature Communications.

Konstantinos P. Giapis with his reactor that converts carbon dioxide to molecular oxygen.

Konstantinos P Giapis with his reactor that converts carbon dioxide to molecular oxygen.

The reaction requires an external source of energy, provided by kinetic energy of fast-moving water molecules shot like tiny bullets onto a surface rich in oxides (like the surface of comets). These water molecules are converted to molecular oxygen as the atom of oxygen in the water knock the atom of oxygen in oxides to form a two-atom molecule of oxygen (O2). Comet tails have oxygen present in it and the water gets vaporized by solar winds.

Since some comets also have carbon dioxide (CO2) present in them, researchers tested to see if CO2 could also be used to produce oxygen in a similar way. They shot carbon dioxide molecules onto the surface of gold foil, which cannot be oxidized and thus cannot produce oxygen. The gold surface, too, emitted oxygen. This means that a single carbon dioxide molecule was split into two by the sheer kinetic force energy of the impact.

Carbon dioxide is converted into molecular oxygen in Giapsis's reactor. Credit: Caltech

To further understand the process, Giapis collaborated with his another fellow professor Tom Miller and Phillip Shushkov, who designed a computer simulation of the process.

The team believes this new way of producing oxygen could also be useful in fighting climate change on Earth. Astronauts, theoretically, would be able to extract carbon dioxide — the second largest greenhouse gas — from Earth’s atmosphere. But that is a long way off as the reactor can only generate one or two oxygen molecules for every hundred molecules of carbon dioxide passed accelerated by the reactor.

The most important potential use of the reactor could, however, be on Mars. Small amounts of oxygen have been observed in Mars' atmosphere, which scientists think is being generated by ultraviolet light from the Sun striking carbon dioxide molecules. Giapis hopes that his reactor could be used on the Red Planet to create breathable air for astronauts someday.

"Is it a final device? No. Is it a device that can solve the problem with Mars? No. But it is a device that can do something that is very hard," Giapsis said. "We are doing some crazy things with this reactor."

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