NASA engineers have succeeded in a realm often left to alchemists and magicians -- creating something valuable "out of thin air." In this case, the thin air was a simulated Martian atmosphere, and the valuable commodity was oxygen.

"The concept is to use the resources on Mars to reduce the amount of material that needs to accompany a human mission ... to 'live off the land,' " said David Kaplan, principal investigator of the Exploration Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas. "Producing oxygen using materials readily available on Mars would be an important step toward reducing the costs and risks of an eventual human mission to Mars."

This week's demonstration is an initial test of technology that will be aboard the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander, scheduled to launch April 10, 2001, and land on Mars on January 22, 2002. Called the Mars In-Situ Propellant Production Precursor, the experiment will test the feasibility of using the thin Martian atmosphere to produce oxygen for breathing air and propellants. Propellants created on Mars could eventually be used to send samples and astronauts back to Earth.

"The oxygen production technology being tested this week is based on sound, straightforward chemistry," said Jerry Sanders of Johnson's Propulsion and Fluid Systems Branch.

The primary test involves an experimental device inside a Mars environment chamber that selectively absorbs carbon dioxide from a simulated Martian atmosphere -- called "Mars mix" -- and converts it to oxygen. This technology also may be used to extract pure oxygen from Earth air for home, medical and military needs.

The atmosphere inside the experiment chamber simulates Martian temperatures and atmospheric pressures. The "Mars mix" is 95 percent carbon dioxide, thin (almost 150 times thinner than Earth's atmosphere) and cold (-75 degrees Centigrade, -105 degrees Fahrenheit) like a typical Martian night.

The mix provides the feedstock for the chemical reaction. A wafer-thin, solid-oxide ceramic disk made of zirconia, about the size of a small cookie, is sandwiched between two platinum electrodes and heated to 750 degrees Centigrade (1,380 degrees Fahrenheit). When carbon dioxide is fed to this unit, the zirconia cell "cracks" the carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen. Only the oxygen can penetrate through to the other side of the disk; the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide gases are stopped in their tracks.

The Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander is expected to provide essential insights into how to conduct successful, cost-effective human missions to Mars. The lander's primary science goal is to explore the mineralogy of the landing site, near the Martian equator, by taking visible and infrared pictures of the surrounding terrain and deploying a rover similar to Mars Pathfinder's Sojourner. Other equipment will analyze the Martian soil and surface radiation.

The Mars In-Situ Propellant Production Precursor demonstration is part of Johnson's continuing effort to identify solutions to the challenges facing future human explorers of other worlds. The Johnson Space Center is NASA's lead center for the Human Exploration and Development of Space enterprise.

Mars Surveyor 2001 is part of the Mars Surveyor Program, a long-term program of Mars exploration managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. The laboratory is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA.

For more information about the Mars Surveyor 2001 mission, visit:

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