It is undoubtedly one of humanity’s craziest projects: to set foot on Mars and settle there, conduct sustainable research there, find possible traces of life or even exploit its resources. An adventure that depends on the supply of oxygen, to allow future astronauts to breathe naturally, but also to allow rockets to take off again, since this element is also an oxidizer (substance necessary for combustion).
How do you ? Importing it from Earth is out of the question: it would be far too expensive. It must therefore be produced on site, with the resources available. Chinese researchers have apparently discovered how to obtain this Holy Grail of future manned missions.
We know there is water on the Red Planet. Solar energy can be used to break it down into oxygen and hydrogen, but catalysts are needed to speed up the chemical reaction. In a study published Monday in the journal Nature Synthesis, a team from the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei presents Leo, a robotic chemist capable of creating catalysts from materials from Mars without human intervention.
“Colonization is no longer a distant dream”
Leo analyzed five categories of Martian meteorites, converted them into chemical compounds and then made catalysts from these ores before testing their performance in producing oxygen. This process was repeated by the robot until the best catalyst was found, which researchers say could take up to 2,000 years of human work!
In turn, “the robot can find the best formula from three million possible combinations within six weeks,” assures Jun Jiang, one of the co-authors. “The autonomous nature of AI-based systems is essential due to communication delays between Earth and Mars,” the scientist further emphasizes, requiring twenty minutes to transmit a message from one planet to another.
The researchers also showed that the catalyst could work under conditions on Mars, which they simulated. For example, a test confirmed that the device could consistently produce oxygen at -37°C. “In the future, humanity will be able to build oxygen production factories on Mars and cover the roofs of the factories with catalysts prepared by Leo. Only 15 hours of solar energy are required to reach the oxygen concentration index necessary for human survival. Creating a habitable environment on Mars and achieving the colonization of Mars is no longer a distant dream! » enthusiastically shared a video by the team.
“An interesting step,” says Cnes
Jun Jiang remembers the long-term work: “It took us almost nine years to collect enough field data. » Building on its success, the Chinese team plans to continue its research into artificial intelligence by building “a large-scale laboratory with hundreds of robots and thousands of workstations.”
“This is an interesting step that allows us to make progress in this area, even though the Chinese and the Americans will each be working in their own corner,” said Francis Rocard, astrophysicist at the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes). At the moment, NASA, the American space agency, would not have planned anything other than a short stay of about a month, which would not require a complex installation. “For a stay of 500 days, everything becomes complicated, you need a whole infrastructure and you have to produce propellants with the resources you find on site. Will there be a long stay at NASA? No one knows at the moment,” adds Francis Rocard.
As for the Chinese, they said nothing about their choice, the astrophysicist recalls: “The only announcement they made was that they would send a crew for a non-stop flight around 2033. Will the Americans have done it better and sooner? An interesting competition will take place. »
For the time being, the advantage lies in the United States: the Perseverance rover, which has been on the red planet for two and a half years, has already produced 120 grams of oxygen with CO2 thanks to Moxie, one of its instruments.