Underground Brine Could Be a Source of Oxygen on Mars

If humans are ever going to visit Mars, they may well need to make some crucial resources while they are there, in order to survive long enough to explore and restock for the long return journey. Although the days of flowing surface water are long gone, the Red Planet is not entirely without the raw ingredients to make this work.

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The Mars 2020 mission that launched in July is carrying an experiment with exactly this goal in mind. MOXIE—the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment—is a box not much bigger than a toaster that produces oxygen from atmospheric CO 2~. While a much larger version would be required to make liquid-oxygen fuel for a rocket, MOXIE is sized to produce about the amount of oxygen an active person needs to breathe.

A new study led by Pralay Gayen at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, tests a device that could tap a different resource—perchlorate brine believed to exist in the Martian ground at some locations. The device can split the water in that brine, producing pure oxygen and hydrogen.

Perchlorate (ClO4) salts, we have discovered, are common on Mars. These salts have an affinity for water molecules and can collect water vapor over time, turning into a brine with a very low freezing temperature. There is evidence of sizable amounts of what could be this brine beneath the surface of Mars’ north polar region, and smaller amounts have been invoked as a possible explanation for the active streaks that sometimes appear on Martian slopes.

To test whether we could tap this resource, the researchers built an electrolysis device that they ran in Mars-like conditions. It uses a standard platinum-carbon cathode and a special lead-ruthenium-oxygen anode the researchers developed previously. They mixed up a plausible concentration of magnesium perchlorate brine and filled the headspace in that container with pure CO2 for a Mars-like atmosphere. The whole thing was kept at -36°C (-33°F). When powered up, brine flowed through the device, splitting into pure oxygen gas captured on the anode side and pure hydrogen gas on the cathode side.

The device worked quite well, producing about 25 times as much oxygen as its MOXIE counterpart can manage. MOXIE requires about 300 watts of power to run, and this device matches that oxygen output on about 12 watts. Plus, it also produces hydrogen that could be used in a fuel cell to generate electricity. And it would be smaller and lighter than MOXIE, the researchers say. Ultimately, all this just illustrates that MOXIE is working with a lower quality—but more widely accessible—resource in atmospheric CO2 instead of water.

A device like this would need to go through long-term stress testing, of course, to ensure that performance doesn’t degrade over time and it is generally robust. The membrane that separates

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Mars microbes may have been able to live deep below the planet’s surface

This processed image shows a sideways view of a water-carved channel on Mars.


ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. 3D rendered and colored by Lujendra Ojha

Humanity is super-stoked about the idea of finding signs of ancient life on Mars. So much so we keep sending increasingly more advanced machines, like NASA’s Perseverance rover, to search for evidence. But we might need to take a much deeper look into the matter, a new study suggests. 

A research team led by Rutgers University planetary scientist Lujendra Ojha examined a perplexing problem when it comes to the long-ago habitability of Mars: the paradox of the faint young sun.

The sun wasn’t always the perky ball of heat and light we know today. “About 4 billion years ago, the sun was much fainter so the climate of early Mars should have been freezing,” Rutgers said in a statement on Wednesday. That’s a bit of mystery because we also see lots of signs of water in Mars’ past. 

Research in recent years has pointed to long-ago liquid water on the Martian surface and even the presence of wild megafloods

If it were warm and wet, Mars might have been habitable for microbial life. But how do we get meltwater with a faint young sun? The paper from Ojha and his colleagues, published in the journal Science Advances today, addresses this problem.

“I and my co-authors propose that the faint young sun paradox may be reconciled, at least partly, if Mars had high geothermal heat in its past,” Ojha said. This is a phenomenon seen on Earth where decaying elements produce heat that can melt ice sheets from below. If Mars experienced similar conditions, that could explain liquid water despite the faint sun.

The study shows that ancient Mars would have been ripe for this sort of heating action 4 billion years ago, but the planet’s surface wouldn’t have remained very friendly for liquid water thanks to a thin atmosphere and increasingly colder temperatures. “Therefore, life, if it ever originated on Mars, may have followed liquid water to progressively greater depths,” Rutgers said.

“At such depths, life could have been sustained by hydrothermal (heating) activity and rock-water reactions,” Ojha said. “So, the subsurface may represent the longest-lived habitable environment on Mars.”  

Our knowledge of Mars and its lineage of water has been expanding at a rapid clip. Recent studies have pointed to hidden ponds of briny water under the Martian polar ice

Rovers will continue to scour the Martian surface for hints of ancient life, but we may one day want to peer deeper under the planet’s skin to fully understand its history of habitability.

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Mars microbes may have been able to live deep below planet’s surface

This processed image shows a sideways view of a water-carved channel on Mars.


ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. 3D rendered and colored by Lujendra Ojha

Humanity is super-stoked about the idea of finding signs of ancient life on Mars. So stoked we keep sending increasingly more advanced machines, like NASA’s Perseverance rover, to search for evidence. A new study suggests we might need to take a much deeper look into the matter. 

A research team led by Rutgers University planetary scientist Lujendra Ojha examined a perplexing problem when it comes to the long-ago habitability of Mars: the paradox of the faint young sun.

The sun wasn’t always the perky ball of heat and light we know today. “About 4 billion years ago, the sun was much fainter so the climate of early Mars should have been freezing,” Rutgers said in a statement on Wednesday. That’s a bit of mystery because we also see lots of signs of water in Mars’ past. 

Research in recent years has pointed to long-ago liquid water on the Martian surface and even the presence of wild megafloods

If it were warm and wet, Mars might have been habitable for microbial life. But how do we get meltwater with a faint young sun? The paper from Ojha and his colleagues, published in the journal Science Advances today, addresses this problem.

“I and my co-authors propose that the faint young sun paradox may be reconciled, at least partly, if Mars had high geothermal heat in its past,” Ojha said. This is a phenomenon seen on Earth where decaying elements produce heat that can melt ice sheets from below. If Mars experienced similar conditions, that could explain liquid water despite the faint sun.

The study shows that ancient Mars would have been ripe for this sort of heating action 4 billion years ago, but the planet’s surface wouldn’t have remained very friendly for liquid water thanks to a thin atmosphere and increasingly colder temperatures. “Therefore, life, if it ever originated on Mars, may have followed liquid water to progressively greater depths,” Rutgers said.

“At such depths, life could have been sustained by hydrothermal (heating) activity and rock-water reactions,” Ojha said. “So, the subsurface may represent the longest-lived habitable environment on Mars.”  

Our knowledge of Mars and its lineage of water has been expanding at a rapid clip. Recent studies have pointed to hidden ponds of briny water under the Martian polar ice

Rovers will continue to scour the Martian surface for hints of ancient life, but we may one day want to peer deeper under the planet’s skin to fully understand its history of habitability.

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SpaceX could be on its way to Mars sooner than you’d think

View of SpaceX's Starship vehicle behind a Boca Chica Village home on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019, in Boca Chica. The SpaceX's prototype, resembling an old sci-fi movie rocket of the '50s, will be fully reusable transportation system designed to service all Earth orbit needs as well as the Moon and Mars.

View of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle behind a Boca Chica Village home on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019, in Boca Chica. The SpaceX’s prototype, resembling an old sci-fi movie rocket of the ’50s, will be fully reusable transportation system designed to service all Earth orbit needs as well as the Moon and Mars.

Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

SpaceX could be headed to Mars sooner than expected.

In a Dec. 1 interview with Mathias Döpfner of Axel Springer SE, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said he’s “fairly confident” SpaceX will be on its way to Mars six years from now, but it could happen as early as 2024.

“If you say six years from now I think [I’m] highly confident, if we get lucky, maybe four years,” he said, adding that “we want to try and send a uncrewed vehicle there in two years.”

According to Space.com’s Mike Wall, the 165-foot-tall (50 meters) Starship is the vehicle in question, and it will launch from Earth atop a giant rocket known as Super Heavy.

COMING SOON: Jupiter and Saturn to form ultra-rare ‘double planet’ this December


“We want to have a future that is inspiring and exciting,” Musk said. “A future where we are a space-bearing civilization and out there among the stars, every kid get excited about that, you don’t even have to teach them.”

Musk said his own first trip to orbit will possibly be in two or three years, but one thing he knows for sure: He wants to be buried on Mars, “just not on impact.”

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Best region for life on Mars was far below surface

Best region for life on Mars was far below surface
A vertically exaggerated, false-color view of a large, water-carved channel on Mars called Dao Vallis. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. 3D rendered and colored by Lujendra Ojha

The most habitable region for life on Mars would have been up to several miles below its surface, likely due to subsurface melting of thick ice sheets fueled by geothermal heat, a Rutgers-led study concludes.


The study, published in the journal Science Advances, may help resolve what’s known as the faint young sun paradox—a lingering key question in Mars science.

“Even if greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor are pumped into the early Martian atmosphere in computer simulations, climate models still struggle to support a long-term warm and wet Mars,” said lead author Lujendra Ojha, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “I and my co-authors propose that the faint young sun paradox may be reconciled, at least partly, if Mars had high geothermal heat in its past.”

Our sun is a massive nuclear fusion reactor that generates energy by fusing hydrogen into helium. Over time, the sun has gradually brightened and warmed the surface of planets in our solar system. About 4 billion years ago, the sun was much fainter so the climate of early Mars should have been freezing. However, the surface of Mars has many geological indicators, such as ancient riverbeds, and chemical indicators, such as water-related minerals, that suggest the red planet had abundant liquid water about 4.1 billion to 3.7 billion years ago (the Noachian era). This apparent contradiction between the geological record and climate models is the faint young sun paradox.

On rocky planets like Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury, heat-producing elements like uranium, thorium and potassium generate heat via radioactive decay. In such a scenario, liquid water can be generated through melting at the bottom of thick ice sheets, even if the sun was fainter than now. On Earth, for example, geothermal heat forms subglacial lakes in areas of the West Antarctic ice sheet, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. It’s likely that similar melting may help explain the presence of liquid water on cold, freezing Mars 4 billion years ago.

The scientists examined various Mars datasets to see if heating via geothermal heat would have been possible in the Noachian era. They showed that the conditions needed for subsurface melting would have been ubiquitous on ancient Mars. Even if Mars had a warm and wet climate 4 billion years ago, with the loss of the magnetic field, atmospheric thinning and subsequent drop in global temperatures over time, liquid water may have been stable only at great depths. Therefore, life, if it ever originated on Mars, may have followed liquid water to progressively greater depths.

“At such depths, life could have been sustained by hydrothermal (heating) activity and rock-water reactions,” Ojha said. “So, the subsurface may represent the longest-lived habitable environment on Mars.”

NASA’s Mars InSight spacecraft

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Manned Mission To Mars Close To Possibility As New Tech Transforms Salty Water To Oxygen And Fuel

KEY POINTS

  • Unlike NASA’s MOXIE, this new technology can produce oxygen and hydrogen from salty water
  • The team behind this device wants to partner with NASA for its goal of bringing humans to Mars by 2023
  • Apart from Martian missions, the new technology is also useful on Earth

Access to water and fuel remains to be the biggest barrier to manned missions to Mars. The good news is that a new electrolyzer technology could trample that obstacle, making it possible for humans to survive the extreme conditions on the Red Planet. 

A team of engineers developed an electrolyzer device that can turn salty water into fuel and oxygen. Details of their development were published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This device can produce 25 times more oxygen than NASA’s Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), which is currently used by the Perseverance rover that’s currently on its way to Mars.

Unlike MOXIE, which produces oxygen from carbon dioxide, the new tech from the engineers of Washington University can produce both oxygen and hydrogen even from salty water. 

“Our novel brine electrolyzer incorporates a lead ruthenate pyrochlore anode developed by our team in conjunction with a platinum on carbon cathode,” Vijay Ramani, lead author and professor at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University, said in a press release.  

“These carefully designed components coupled with the optimal use of traditional electrochemical engineering principles has yielded this high performance,” he explained further.

The team hopes it could partner with NASA for its goal of bringing humans to Mars by 2023. After all, it performed a simulation of the Martian atmosphere at -33 degrees Fahrenheit in testing its brine electrolysis device.  

Salty water is abundant on Mars, a fact that has already been established by various studies in the past. In September, three underground lakes were also discovered on the Red Planet. The waters were found to contain extremely salty components. 

Apart from Martian missions, the technology is also useful on Earth, according to the engineers. The standard electrolysis device on Earth requires pure water, whereas this new device can make oxygen and fuel even from salty water, making it more economical to use. 

The electrolysis system also has diverse applications. For instance, submarines for deep ocean exploration can rely on the system to produce enough supply of oxygen and fuel from salty water.

Mars seen from the Hubble space telescope Mars seen from the Hubble space telescope Photo: NASA / NASA

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3-D print your own Mars rover with ExoMy

3D print your own Mars rover with ExoMy
Europe’s Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover has a younger ’sibling’ – ExoMy. The blueprints and software for this mini-version of the full-size Mars explorer are available for free so that anyone can 3D print, assemble and program their own ExoMy. Credit: European Space Agency

Europe’s Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover has a younger ‘sibling’ – ExoMy. The blueprints and software for this mini-version of the full-size Mars explorer are available for free so that anyone can 3-D print, assemble and program their own ExoMy.


The six-wheeled ExoMy rover was designed by ESA’s Planetary Robotics Laboratory, which specializes in developing locomotion platforms and navigation systems to support ESA’s planetary exploration missions.

“Anyone with a 3-D printer can build their own ExoMy, at an estimated budget of €500 or less,” explains Swiss trainee Miro Voellmy. “The source code is available on GitHub along with a step-by-step assembly guide and tutorials.

“We focused on making the design as affordable and accessible as possible. It uses a Raspberry Pi computer and off-the-shelf electronic parts available online and at any hobby shop. Our hope is that school or university students will make their own ExoMy, to become familiar with robotics, and learn about the full-sized ExoMars rover, which is scheduled for launch in 2022.”

Enthusiasts all around the world have already built their own ExoMy rovers. Its structural parts take around two weeks to 3-D print out of PLA, a biodegradable material made out of plant starch.

The 42 cm high rover reproduces key features of its 2 m tall big ‘sister’ on a non-functional basis, including a drill, solar panels across its back wings and a camera mast featuring a customisable smiley face, mouth and hat.

3D print your own Mars rover with ExoMy
Europe’s Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover has a younger ‘sibling’ – ExoMy. The blueprints and software for this mini-version of the full-size Mars explorer are available for free so that anyone can 3-D print, assemble and program their own ExoMy. Credit: European Space Agency

“We aimed to make the design as accessible and fun as possible,” says German trainee Maximillian Ehrhardt. “ExoMy actually began as a one-off demonstrator at the ESA Open Day at ESTEC here in the Netherlands in 2018. Visitors of all ages could drive it across the lab’s “Mars Yard,” a test facility that mimics Martian terrain. It was a big hit, which made us think about a version that people could build for themselves.”

ExoMy also reuses Rosalind Franklin’s ‘triple-bogie’ suspension design, which allows it to cross high obstacles as high as its own wheelwhile keeping them stably on the ground.

Each wheel has its own motor, and their tread has protrusions to assist traction over rough ground. But flexible sleeves can also be printed out to slid over the wheels for smoother passage over level surfaces.

  • 3D print your own Mars rover with ExoMy
    Europe’s Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover has a younger ’sibling’ – ExoMy. The blueprints and software for this mini-version of the full-size Mars explorer are available for free so that anyone can 3-D print, assemble and program their own ExoMy. Anyone
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The cutest Mars rover in the galaxy is one you can build for yourself

This perky little rover uses 3D-printed parts and runs on a Raspberry Pi computer.


ESA

Most Mars rovers are kind of cute anyway (hello, NASA Curiosity), but they’re about to be outdone by a new kid on the block: the ExoMy rover, a model Mars vehicle you can build for yourself from 3D-printed components.

ExoMy is based on the Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover from the European Space Agency. ESA has made the ExoMy open-source plans available free online through GitHub.

“We focused on making the design as affordable and accessible as possible,” ESA’s Miro Voellmy said in a statement on Monday. “It uses a Raspberry Pi computer and off-the-shelf electronic parts available online and at any hobby shop.”  

The agency estimates it will cost between $300 and $600 to make the rover, which stands about 16 inches (42 centimeters) tall. 

ExoMy looks a lot like its full-size counterpart. It has six wheels and borrows the “triple-bogie” suspension that will allow Rosalind Franklin to handily navigate the rough terrain on Mars. The camera mast has a customizable face and is designed to wear different hats, just in case you want it to look even cuter.

ESA released a video of an ExoMy in action showing the little vehicle rolling over rocks and sand. “ExoMy is more than a toy as it can serve as a low-cost research and prototyping platform for robotic experiments,” said Voellmy.   

Rosalind Franklin was originally scheduled to launch in 2020, but technical issues and the coronavirus pandemic delayed it to 2022

Mars is set to become a busy place over the next few years. NASA, China and the United Arab Emirates all launched missions to the red planet this year, and all will arrive in February 2021. NASA and China will attempt to land rovers on the surface. 

ESA may have to wait a bit for Rosalind Franklin to catch up, but Earth could end up as home to plenty of plucky ExoMy rovers in the meantime. 

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Laboratory experiments unravelling the mystery of the Mars moon Phobos

Laboratory experiments unravelling the mystery of the Mars moon Phobos
Paul Szabo in the lab at TU Wien Credit: TU Wien

Of course, there is no weather in our sense of the word in space—nevertheless, soil can also “weather” in the vacuum of space if it is constantly bombarded by high-energy particles, such as those emitted by the sun. The Martian moon Phobos is affected by a special situation: it is so close to Mars that not only the solar wind but also the irradiation by particles from Mars plays a decisive role there. A research team from TU Wien has now been able to measure this in laboratory experiments. In just a few years, a Japanese space mission will take soil samples from Phobos and bring them back to Earth.


Billions of years of particle irradiation

“There are different theories of how the Mars moon Phobos could have formed”, says Paul Szabo, who is working on his Ph.D. thesis in the research group of Prof. Friedrich Aumayr at the Institute of Applied Physics at TU Wien. “It is possible that Phobos was originally an asteroid that was then captured by Mars, but it could also have been created by a collision of Mars with another large object.”

When investigating such celestial bodies, one must always bear in mind that their surfaces have been completely changed over billions of years by cosmic particle bombardment. The surface of the Earth remains unaffected by this, because our atmosphere shields the particles. However, the geology of celestial bodies without atmospheres, such as our Moon or Phobos, can only be understood if it is possible to correctly assess “space weathering”.

Therefore, elaborate experiments were conducted at TU Wien: “We used a mineral like it is found on Phobos and bombarded it in vacuum chambers with different charged particles,” explains Paul Szabo. “Using an extremely precise balance, we can measure how much material is removed in the process and how much each particle affects the surface.

Laboratory experiments unravelling the mystery of the Mars moon Phobos
Markus Wappl, Paul Szabo, Friedrich Aumayr und Herbert Biber (left to right). Credit: TU Wien

The special properties of the moon Phobos must be taken into account: Its distance from the surface of Mars is less than 6000 km—not even two percent of the distance between our Moon and the Earth. Just like our Moon, it is in a tidally locked rotation around its planet: The same side always faces Mars.

“Because of the extremely small distance between Mars and Phobos, not only particles emitted from the Sun play a role on the surface of Phobos, but also particles from Mars,” says Paul Szabo. The Martian atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide. But in the outer regions of the atmosphere there are also larger amounts of oxygen. When particles from the solar wind penetrate there, oxygen ions can be created, which then hit Phobos at high speed and change the surface material.

Data for 2024 space mission

“With our measuring methods we were able to estimate the erosion of Phobos much more accurately than was previously possible,” says Friedrich

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Rollercoaster research landed, next flight: Moon and Mars

Rollercoaster research landed, next flight: moon and Mars
Air Zero G parabolic aircraft at Padeborn-Lippstadt airport. Credit: Novespace

It was a difficult campaign to organize, but the scientific results are some of the best ever. Earlier this month, over 60 researchers ran 11 experiments in an Airbus aircraft with no less than three pilots. This was no ordinary flight: the A310 “Air Zero G’ flew in repeated arcs 600 m up and down, providing ‘weightlessness’ in freefall conditions for all passengers and their experiments, 20 seconds at a time.


With flights prepared and operated by contractor Novespace, ESA runs regular parabolic campaigns to conduct scientific research and to test hardware for future space missions.

“Usually our ‘home base’ for parabolic flights is Merignac airport in Bordeaux, France,” says ESA’s Parabolic Flight coordinator Neil Melville, “but to minimize risk due to COVID-19 infection rates and maximize participation despite travel restrictions, we relocated to Padeborn-Lippstadt airport in Germany.

“Changing our plans and getting all of the equipment and personnel to the new location was a logistical challenge, especially at short notice, but with the great work of Novespace and the support of our new hosts we got it done.

“I would say it was probably the most scientifically successful campaign we’ve ever had, since all the experiments got near-perfect data from nearly all parabolas.”

As in all human spaceflight, safety is paramount and many measures were taken to ensure COVID-19 was kept at bay. All participants were tested before leaving high-risk areas, temperatures were checked regularly, strict social distancing was in place in the hangar where experiments were prepared, masks were obligatory at all times, only a limited number of experimenters were allowed on the aircraft, and the plane’s seating arrangement was changed to ensure social distancing.

Rollercoaster research landed, next flight: moon and Mars
Test subjects in a parabolic flight conducting “The Influence of Gravity on the Perception of Self-Motion SMUG (Self-Motion Under Gravity)” experiment. It was a difficult campaign to organise, but the scientific results are some of the best ever. In November 2020 over 60 researchers run 11 experiments in an Airbus aircraft with no less than three pilots. This was no ordinary flight: the A310 ‘Air Zero G’ flew in parabolic arcs, repeatedly free-falling 600m up and back down again, providing weightlessness for all passengers and their experiments, 20 seconds at a time. Credit: Novespace
ESA is taking advantage of Novespace’s latest ‘Zero-G’ aircraft to perform a number of experiments in microgravity. Twelve experiments – which include six by professional scientists and six by students as part of ESA’s Fly Your Thesis programme – took to the skies for three series of 31 parabolas off the coast of France. Conditions of microgravity, or weightlessness, are unique for research ranging from fundamental physics, testing Einstein’s weak equivalence principle, to psychology, neuroscience and the deployment of a balloon that may one day make measurements while falling through Mars’ atmosphere. Credit: European Space Agency
Rollercoaster research landed, next flight: moon and Mars
Science with(out) gravity – parabolic flights. Credit: European Space Agency

The diverse experiments focused on how humans perceive motion without gravity as reference,

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