(CN) — If we want to get to Mars, we’re going to need oxygen. Human exploration and colonization of Mars has been an almost perpetual theme of science fiction, but the reality of actually getting people on the surface of the planet has proved difficult. Not only do people need oxygen to breathe, which Mars’ atmosphere sorely lacks, but rocket propellants to get people to the planet need the element as well.
Getting that all-important element out there is complex — and expensive. Luckily, scientists have come up with an artificial intelligence chemist that can produce oxygen from meteorites on the red planet, according to a new study published on Monday in Nature Synthesis.
Mars has a cold desert climate today, but recent studies done by NASA provided evidence that ancient Mars used to have large bodies of water, like rivers, lakes and even an ocean that probably covered half of the planet’s northern hemisphere. A study published earlier this year in Science Advances detailing evidence collected by China’s Zhurong rover that explored Mars in 2021 pointed to the possibility that water existed on the planet even earlier than previously thought.
Evidence that Mars used to have water raised the possibility that oxygen could in fact be produced on the planet.
Using five different kinds of meteorites that either came from or are known to exist on Mars, scientists developed a robotic artificial intelligence chemist that can synthesize oxygen from the extraterrestrial rocks.
The AI chemist repeated the process with millions of combinations of chemicals from the meteorites until it developed the best oxygen producing catalyst process, something which would have taken humans thousands of years to do, Dr. Jun Jiang, a professor at the University of Science and Technology of China, and one of the corresponding authors of the study, said in an interview.
“It has a chemist’s brain,” Jiang said about the AI, which can run in Martian environmental conditions entirely automated, self-directed, and without human intervention.
"Particularly powerful is the in situ optimization, which seamlessly combines the experimental data and computational data during the synthesis process, greatly accelerating the generation of a reliable model and finding of an optimal formula," the study's authors write.
The researchers hope that their AI chemist will not only be useful to reduce the cost and complexity of future human missions to other planets, but that it might also pave the way for people to be able to make oxygen on Mars.
Jiang added that the scientists and researchers involved in the study are now seeing if their results can be duplicated using materials found on the Moon and in lunar soil. If it works, they’d like to ask the China National Space Administration to send a probe to the Moon to try to duplicate their findings there, Jiang added.
In 2021, an experimental instrument called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, attached to NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, was able to convert carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. Like the AI chemist, NASA hopes that MOXIE will pave the way for human exploration of other planets in the solar system.
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