NASA has partnered with a private company to design and build an oxygen production facility for a Martian outpost or colony. The make the oxygen, bacteria and algae would use the nitrogen-rich Martian soil to make the precious oxygen, essential for the astronauts’ survival. It can be used to make air, water and fuel.

Mars colony

Image: Beta Crumb

NASA says it’s still well on track for it’s slated 2030 manned mission to Mars, but that’s certainly easier said than done. The challenges are numerous and far reaching, but that was expected – after all, this is the most important space mission man has ever undertaken. Can you imagine those first moments when humans will touch ground with the Martian surface? But while you might keep your breath during this tense lapse, the astronauts will have no such luxury. The moon landings were child’s play compared to this. Astronauts could leave Earth in morning, have a nice moon walk by lunch and get home safe in time for dinner. One big oxygen tank was more than enough, but when you have to travel almost a year in space to reach your destination you know a oxygen tank can’t cut it anymore. Obviously, NASA needs to make its own oxygen – there’s really no other way in these sort of situations, but the real question was how? What’s the best solution?

On Earth, almost 80% of all oxygen is made by photosynthetic algae and cyanobacteria. Effectively, both algae and cyanobacteria use the sun’s energy to split water into oxygen, but some species can reduce nitrogen and use the electrons for oxygen generation, as a byproduct of photosynthesis. In fact, cyanobacteria comprise the oldest fossils found on Earth: the 3.5 billion-year-old stromatolites that dot the shallow shores of Western Australia. There’s good reason too: there wouldn’t be any other species on Earth, if it weren’t for them; not the kind we’ve gotten used to at least.

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During the Earth’s early years, most microbes lived the old fashioned way: anaerobically. Instead of oxygen, they thrived on sulfate which supplied their energy needs. But roughly 2.45 billion years ago, the isotopic ratio of sulfur transformed, indicating that for the first time oxygen was becoming a significant component of Earth’s atmosphere, according to a 2000 paper in Science.

“What it looks like is that oxygen was first produced somewhere around 2.7 billion to 2.8 billon years ago. It took up residence in atmosphere around 2.45 billion years ago,” says geochemist Dick Holland, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. “It looks as if there’s a significant time interval between the appearance of oxygen-producing organisms and the actual oxygenation of the atmosphere.”

Geologists and geochemists call this the Great Oxidation Event, and the cyanobacteria was the leading figure of this revolution that would forever transform the planet’s atmosphere. Cyanobacteria were the first organisms that used H2O instead of H2S or other compounds as a source of electrons and hydrogen for fixing CO2. So, it’s rather natural that Techshot – a private company tasked by NASA to handle the life support generating systems on Mars – is focusing its efforts on algae and bacteria. They’re easy to grow, they don’t need much space or nutrients and they’re rather efficient.

The company is already experimenting with some solutions. They even built an artificial Martian habitat called the “Mars Room”, which simulates everything from the atmosphere and soil chemistry of Mars, to radiation levels, to the length of the day. Test runs so far have proven very promising, according to the Techshot. The company previously developed X-ray systems for the International Space Stations and even submersible vehicles for important scientific missions in the ocean.

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

Numerous interconnected biodomes quickly assembled on the Martian surface housing the algae and bacteria is the ideal design so far. NASA will soon send a new rover to Mars, and when that happens it will likely carry a few small canisters containing the microbes. If it proves successful, a large scale mission might be also put to the test.

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