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Red nation on the red planet? This communist country’s latest venture could be key to human activity on Mars

A robotic space chemist could create oxygen on Mars using materials from the planet’s surface, Chinese researchers behind the project say.

A refrigerator-sized machine equipped with artificial intelligence and a robotic arm broke down material from five meteorites and analyzed it to identify a chemical formula that creates a substance that can cause oxygen to separate from water. Researchers said it would have taken a human 2,000 years to find that formula.

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“Oxygen supply must be the top priority for any human activity on Mars, because rocket propellants and life support systems consume substantial amounts of oxygen, which cannot be replenished from the Martian atmosphere,” the researchers wrote. “Here we demonstrate a robotic artificial-intelligence chemist for automated synthesis and intelligent optimization of catalysts for the oxygen evolution reaction from Martian meteorites.”

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Creating oxygen from Martian materials and ice would remove the need for astronauts to bring oxygen-creating supplies to the planet from Earth. Further, a robotic chemist could eliminate the need for humans to oversee the processes.

“We have developed a robotic AI system that has a chemistry brain,” said University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei scientist Jun Jiang, who led the study. “We think our machine can make use of compounds in Martian ores without human guidance.”

This was not the first experiment to test how to create oxygen on Mars.

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NASA’s rover, Perseverance, carried an experimental device nicknamed MOXIE that has successfully produced oxygen 16 different times from the Martian atmosphere since 2021, according to the agency. MOXIE produced over 120 grams of oxygen in total, enough to keep a small dog alive for 10 hours.

“There’s zero obstacle to scaling this up,” Michael Hect, the head of MOXIE told Nature, adding “you can produce two to three kilograms an hour.”

Each astronaut aboard the International Space Station needs about 840 grams of oxygen a day to survive, according to NASA

Meanwhile, Jiang said his robot could form more than just oxygen. 

“Different chemicals can be made by this robot,” he said, noting that it could create a method to produce plant fertilizer. 

“Maybe lunar soil is another direction,” Jiang added. 

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