Bacteria brought to Mars could produce oxygen vital for a human mission to the Red Planet, and researchers are working on systems to make that a reality. If this idea proves fruitful, one of the greatest expenses — and challenges — in flying people to Mars, carrying oxygen for the multiyear mission, may be bypassed.
Techshot, an aerospace development corporation, has been tasked by NASA with finding a way to utilize bacteria to create the oxygen needed for a human mission to Mars. The company has constructed a Mars room, capable of simulating conditions that exist on the surface of the Red Planet, including atmosphere, radiation and the proper day-night cycle. Certain microorganisms could extract oxygen and nitrogen from the Martian regolith, the rocky material covering bedrock.
"This is a possible way to support a human mission to Mars, producing oxygen without having to send heavy gas canisters. Let's send microbes and let them do the heavy-lifting for us," Eugene Boland, chief scientist at Techshot Inc., said.
Creating oxygen while on Mars, as opposed to carrying the life-sustaining gas from Earth, could be vital to the founding of permanent human settlements on the Red Planet. Self-contained ecosystems, producing materials needed for human life, may be created one day and sent to Mars to assist in sustaining human life on Mars.
Biodomes could, one day, be found around Mars, producing oxygen, nitrogen and other essential resources for planetary visitors and colonists. Subsurface ice may also be a valuable resource, in an effort to extract water from the alien environment.
Algae, as well as bacteria, could be used to manufacture life-sustaining resources for those traveling to Mars. Carrying these tiny organisms to Mars would take up much less space and have far less mass than carting oxygen and other gases directly. Such an advance would significantly reduce the cost of a mission to Mars.
Future research could use a rover to plant test canisters in the Martian ground. These containers, packed with cyanobacteria and other extremophiles, which live in harsh conditions, would be placed just a few inches beneath the surface. There, the microorganisms would interact with the regolith, hopefully producing the desired byproducts. Sensors within the canisters would detect concentrations of oxygen and other target materials and send that data to an orbiting spacecraft for relay to controllers on Earth. Such testing containers would need to be tightly sealed to prevent exposure of the terrestrial organisms to the Martian atmosphere.
Due to the relative orbits of the Earth and Mars, resupply missions to the Red Planet would likely only take place once every 500 days or so. This makes manufacturing oxygen on Mars nearly essential to any plans to colonize the Red Planet.