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Geekend: 2 Steps Closer To Mars

A successful experiment on the side of a volcano and an artificial leaf that makes oxygen have gotten us closer to sending people to Mars.

generate it. The Space Shuttle used to generate water by using the liquid hydrogen and oxygen it also used for fuel. That's fine, but we don't really know what form of fuel we'll use to get to Mars, so we need another way to get air and water.

Enter the artificial leaf. Royal College of Art graduate Julian Melchiorri has created a completely synthetic leaf that turns water, carbon dioxide and sunlight into oxygen through photosynthesis, just like a real leaf on a tree does. The leaf promises to help astronauts get to Mars, and more important, stay there, by making their oxygen for them.

NASA has long experimented with the idea of growing plants on long-term space flights as a way of naturally filtering the air and supplementing the food. But there are space constraints and other problems. You have to pick the right plants in the right conditions, bring the right seeds, and if you want this to be a really long-term project, you might even want to consider space bees to help you pollinate plants.

The artificial leaf doesn't provide food, but it will bring oxygen to a spaceship naturally. That's a big deal. The leaf looks just like you'd expect: a piece of green fabric shaped like a leaf. People have made other attempts at artificial leaves to create electricity through photosynthesis (plants make energy from the sun as well). But this, to my knowledge, is the first time the leaf is for the purpose of oxygen alone. It shows serious promise.

Attentive readers will note one thing: Just like our current method of making oxygen in space, the artificial leaf requires water. And water is scarce in space. It's too early to see whether the leaf will be more efficient than previous methods. The leaf might not be able to help with oxygen during the flight to Mars itself.

So why is it valuable? Because once we arrive on Mars, it will be the perfect addition to a Mars base. Roll out hundreds of these leaves on the roof of the base and you have instant oxygen.

It's believed that crew members can create water relatively easy on Mars by cooking it out of the soil or condensing it from the air. While we don't know of any huge water deposits on Mars, we know there's abundant hydrogen and oxygen in the various compounds in the planet's soil and atmosphere. NASA plans to experiment with the creation of oxygen and water on the moon and Mars with unmanned trips later this decade.

Here's how they'll do it:

With a working production-level artificial leaf, the oxygen and water problem could be reduced to merely a water problem, which seems to be the easier problem on Mars. Astronauts could plant a "forest" of these leaves and have a non-mechanical -- and therefore reliable -- solution to the oxygen problem.

The leaf also satisfies another of my favorite criteria for a Mars mission: application on Earth. While I'd prefer that we get our oxygen the old fashioned way through trees, the artificial leaf could potentially help remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through the same process trees do. Making clothing, shelters, building "skins," and all manner of other things out of this special cloth could help solve a very real problem on Earth.

We've still got a long way to go to get to Mars. But these two bits of news this week show some steps in the right direction. One major missing link is either a large enough rocket to lift a very large ship off the Earth and send it to Mars or a way to build that space ship in space in order to avoid the tough task of leaving Earth's gravity. Radiation while travelling through space is also a major issue. But there are people working on all of these problems. I hope I'll get to cover them in another article.

What do you think? Will we get people to Mars and back safely in your lifetime? Should we even try? Answer in the comments section below.

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