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UA scientists build oxygen machine for Mars mission

By Sean McLachlan
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 25, 1999
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Wildcat File Photo
Arizona Daily Wildcat

Photo courtesy of http://ares.ame.arizona.edu/~oxygen/press The Oxygen Generating Subsystem, which will be aboard the Mars 2001 Surveyor, was developed by UA scientists. The device stands only 5 inches tall and weighs about two pounds.

A professor and a team of scientists at the UA's Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Department have developed a way to create oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.

The device, called the Oxygen Generating Subsystem, will fly aboard the Mars Surveyor 2001 mission and attempt to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into oxygen.

The oxygen could then be used for breathing and propulsion, which would reduce the cost of a space missions by lessening the dependency on resources from Earth.

Where It's At

The UA chapter of SEDS meets every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in room 308 of the Kuiper Space Sciences building. Every other meeting features a lecture by scientist interested in space exploration. A schedule can be found on the club's website at www.seds.org/UASEDS/
"Without learning to live off the land, you will never be able to think about permanent settlements" said K.R. Sridhar, the aerospace and mechanical engineering associate professor who leads the team of scientists.

He told the University of Arizona chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) about the potential for the device. About 35 students gathered to hear his speech at the Kuiper Space Sciences building last night.

The Martian atmosphere will be collected using special crystals, which absorbs carbon dioxide "like a sponge in water" at low nighttime temperatures, Sridhar said. As the temperature rises in the Martian daytime, the crystals will release the oxygen into the Oxygen Generating Subsystem.

By utilizing natural temperature changes, the system requires very little energy, he said.

"This is a clever way to use the environment to your advantage," Sridhar said.

Once the carbon dioxide is in the device, it passes through an electrochemical cell similar to a battery. The cell then filters out the oxygen. Instead of containing acid like a regular battery, the cell contains a special ceramic which allows only oxygen atoms to pass.

The ceramic "battery" requires less than 15 watts of power to create one cubic centimeter of oxygen per minute.

"It actually produces twice the oxygen that NASA required for this payload," Sridhar said.

The project is being sponsored by the NASA-Johnson Space Center.

Sridhar envisions other applications for his Oxygen Generating Subsystem besides providing future astronauts with much-needed air. He also hopes to use the oxygen as a propellant in a larger version of his system to fuel a return trip for a later Mars mission.

The system creates other useful chemical byproducts, Sridhar said. Carbon monoxide can be turned into fibers for construction, plastics or can be used as a fuel.

The most important aspect of this technology, Sridhar said, is that it makes human exploration of Mars more affordable.

Erin Ryan, astronomy and physics freshman and SEDS secretary, said the machine offers possibilities for exploration of Mars.

"This opens up a lot of opportunities when we want to have a manned flight," she said.

The idea of people landing on Mars is the driving force for this project, Sridhar said.

"It is the fundamental urge of human beings to explore that will take us to Mars more than anything else," he said.