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Space Exploration: When We Get to Mars, Will we be Able to Breathe?

gif of astronaut in space looking at mars pondering

We are now living in the science fiction world that we only read about decades ago. Robots, artificial intelligence, and space exploration were only the stuff of movies, television, and literature. Now, with the rapid innovations in science and technology, these stories are now a reality and a norm in the grand human experience and making bold impacts on society and its future. For example, colonizing Mars is no longer just a possibility, but an eventuality. There are many ongoing international initiatives toward terraforming Mars, such as Elon Musk and SpaceX’s ambition to ferry basic necessities and people to Mars in the next few years. Building homes on the red planet is a priority in colonizing, but one basic question has not been thoroughly addressed by scientists. Can we breathe on Mars? Can we produce enough oxygen on Mars to survive?

Earth Versus Mars, Terraforming

Cartoon of astronauts on a space exploration.
Space exploration and living in Mars isn’t just in the movies anymore.

Unlike Earth, Mars is quite uninhabitable. Although they have almost the same tilt, which indicates that both planets experience four different seasons, Mars is significantly colder. The average temperature in Earth is 57°F, while in Mars the average temperature is -81°F. It is colder than the Antarctic and drier than the Sahara.

Breathing the air in Mars is detrimental for humans. Its atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s. Ninety-six percent of the atmosphere in Mars is carbon dioxide, with only 0.15% oxygen on Mars. On Earth, the atmosphere is 77% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 0.038% carbon dioxide. The Martian atmosphere has only 0.6% of Earth’s atmospheric pressure. Breathing in Mars would be like being in a vacuum. After 15 seconds in Mars, a human would have depleted all oxygen in the body and would lose consciousness. The body would dry up, the moisture lining in the lungs would be inflamed, and saliva in the mouth would boil. The lungs would rupture, effectively killing a human being.

So can we breathe on Mars? The short answer is no—not without any oxygen vessels strapped to our space suits. More than discovering any signs of life or water in Mars, it is more important to find ways for humans to breathe long enough to terraform the planet for human colony.

Hope for Mars Found on Earth

Silk Leaf - a synthetic biological leaf for space exploration and terraforming
Silk Leaf Converts Light and Water Into Oxygen

Now there is new hope in the quest to provide a consistent supply of oxygen for human explorers on Mars: cyanobacteria. Also known as blue-green algae or Cyanophyta, it is a family of bacteria that draws in carbon dioxide and discharges oxygen in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Cyanobacteria can use photosynthesis to produce energy, especially in places with far less sunlight. These cyanobacteria thrive in the deepest and darkest areas in the ocean, like the Marianas Trench.

Chlorophyll is instrumental in the photosynthesis process. Plants and other organisms convert visible light into energy using chlorophyll-a. Cyanobacteria, on the other hand, uses a different kind of chlorophyll, chlorophyll-f, to convert far-red/near infrared light into energy. This is their secret to living in environments with hardly any light sources.

This redefines the minimum energy required to process photosynthesis and produce oxygen in Mars. Previous potential plans to create oxygen in Mars involved extreme procedures such as redirecting asteroids to release heat on impact. Another strategy was to set up a giant mirror system to melt the polar ice caps, to release water and carbon dioxide, and thus oxygen, in Mars. These processes would ultimately force an irreversible climate change in the planet to sustain human civilization on Mars.

Scientists found cyanobacteria in the Antarctica, Mojave Desert, and even on the exterior of the International Space Station. As the organism survives in the harshest weather conditions on Earth, it may well adapt and thrive on Mars.

Space Exploration Realized

Perhaps the Mars 2020 rover could bring a sample of cyanobacteria to the red planet on its next mission to test the possibility of growing extraterrestrial oxygen. NASA previously revealed in 2014 that it had an experiment called MOXIE. It involves using the abundant carbon dioxide found in the Mars atmosphere and converting it to oxygen. Many spaces agencies and private companies are working tirelessly to make this into a reality in the future. They believe harnessing photosynthesis could be the key to creating breathable air for humans on Mars.

There are still a lot of critical things that need to be addressed about living and governing in Mars, or space exploration, in general. But with the rapid developments in the world of science, new solutions may be invented before the new Mars rover launches for space exploration. “Can we breathe in mars?” may no longer be a question, but an obstacle that we will have surpassed sooner than we thought.



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