For some time now, with all the talk of colonising the solar system and the surge of interest in Mars, it has more or less been clear that Earthlings will be the Martians of the future. Of course, making the Red Planet liveable will take perhaps centuries of terraforming (or making the planet more Earth-like). Now, Nasa is looking to start with the bare basic—breathable air. The Martian atmosphere is a thin one, made mostly of carbon dioxide (95.3%), with some nitrogen (2.7%), some argon (1.6%) and oxygen (0.13%) and some other gases in just trace amounts. The American space research agency intends to feed into Martian soil certain microbes that will use the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to pump out oxygen. For some perspective on the mammoth task that the tiny organisms have on hand, consider the fact that Earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. Some Cyanobacterium (actually an algae) species like Synechocystis have been demonstrated to convert carbon dioxide and water into ethylene (gaseous) and oxygen.
Scientists, in lab conditions, have coaxed it to photosynthetically produce oxygen as a byproduct and sequester carbon dioxide in the process. Similarly, the extremophile Chroococcidiopsis has also been reported to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and release oxygen. So, on the plane of theory, Nasa’s plans make eminent sense. The problem is that the Martian surface is rich in hyperoxides that will rapidly burn any organic matter upon contact.
Organisms that can withstand such hyperoxides remain yet undiscovered on Earth—bioengineering certain extremophiles could help, but we are years away from this. Nasa’s intended deadline—the next Rover mission to Mars in 2020—may not be sufficient time for this. Whether a microbe-led oxygen factory materialises in the Martian regolith or not, with Nasa in the picture now, the talk of this has sure got exciting.