One of the most ambitious plans that NASA has announced in decades is to put astronauts on the surface of Mars in the 2030s. The biggest challenge facing NASA and other space agencies in putting humans on Mars is how to carry enough fuel and oxygen, among other things, for the mission to work. NASA has a plan to produce oxygen on Mars and is testing that plan in a smaller system aboard the Perseverance rover that launched in July.
Aboard the Rover is a small device known as the Mars Oxygen in Situ Resource Utilization Experiment or MOXIE. The system is able to convert carbon dioxide that makes 96 percent of the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. Mars has only 0.13 percent oxygen in its atmosphere compared to the 21 percent here on Earth.
Recently scientists from Washington University in St. Louis have come up with a new technique that could complement MOXIE. MOXIE functions by sucking in the Martian atmosphere and using an electrical process to separate an oxygen atom from each molecule of carbon dioxide. The new experimental technique uses a different resource, salty water thought to be hidden in lakes beneath the Martian surface.
Scientists have found evidence of a lake and a number of salty ponds under the surface of Mars near the southern ice cap. Researchers say the presence of brine is a big deal because the salty water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen using electrolysis. Researchers note that ice could be co-electrolyzed with carbon dioxide to produce both oxygen and methane for rocket fuel.
It’s also worth noting that the presence of saltwater deposits on Mars hasn’t been conclusively confirmed. Researchers on the project say that they hope in the next decade or so their system can be advanced enough to be competitive with MOXIE and other systems.