NASA plans oxygen alchemy for manned Mars mission

NASA's manned mission to Mars could take a MacGyver approach to the flight home, potentially relying on oxygen extracted from the red planet's own atmosphere to support crew both during the mission and on the return journey. Dubbed in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), the strategy could mean a very different approach to mission design, particularly when it comes to the planned 2020 robotic rover NASA intends to send to Mars.

That rover, which will follow Curiosity which is currently drilling rock samples to further ascertain what natural resources there might be available on Mars, will carry among its instruments test hardware from the Advanced Exploration Systems Division at NASA.

"A good mass fraction of your vehicle to take back off the surface is your oxidizer," Jason Crusan, division chief told Aviation Week, "so we're looking at the oxygen, specifically, and separating that from the atmosphere of Mars."

The goal would be to convert some of Mars' carbon dioxide atmosphere into oxygen, which could be used both for the crew to breathe, and as the oxidizer part of the fuel mix for the journey back to Earth. While the next Mars rover mission won't actually require either of those things, NASA plans to test out potential hardware for the manned visits beyond that.

Not every mission to Mars plans to bring the explorers back, however. Earlier this month, non-profit Mars One – which aims to set up a colony on the planet – announced that it had narrowed its selection of candidates to 705, and that it was still aiming for a 2024 launch.

The final goal is to have several four-person teams with an equal gender split blast off, once ever two years, but with no scope for a return journey. However, technology like the ISRU oxygen extractors could help in establishing the "Life Support Unit" pods which Mars One plans to utilize.

They're expected to extract oxygen by heating water ice found in the Martian ground soil, combining it with nitrogen and argon from the atmosphere.

SOURCE Aviation Week