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Plasma technology could help produce sustainable oxygen supply for human colonies on Mars

Artist's concept of a manned mission to Mars.

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

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 the necessary amount of oxygen for crew 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 primarily 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

The 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 vapor 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 so-called In-Situ Resource Utilization (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 underlined that the low temperature plasma decomposition method would not only provide a stable, and hopefully reliable supply of oxygen, but could 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 terms of oxygen supply. This 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, and develop and optimize the system. They also eye the development of a small scale prototype that could test their method on Mars.




Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

Plasma reformer technology has been around for over a decade. The problem is energy of course. Since Mars does not have enough solar energy to support anything close to what is needed then nuclear energy becomes the go-to. Developing space-transportable and Mars-landable nuclear power plants with enough output to sustain a closed loop life support infrastructure will be…very expensive. There is no cheap.

You can use a plasma reduction engine to suit the power needs while splitting the gas.

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