There is 99% less air on Mars than on Earth. Is it possible to live on the Red Planet?
Suppose you are an astronaut who has just landed on the planet Mars . What would you need to survive?
Here’s a short list to get you started: water, food, shelter… and oxygen.
Oxygen is in the air we breathe here on Earth. Plants and some types of bacteria provide it to us.
But oxygen is not the only gas in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is not even the most abundant. In fact, only 21% of our air is made up of oxygen. Almost all the rest is nitrogen, about 78%.
Now you may be wondering: if there is more nitrogen in the air, why do we breathe oxygen?
Here’s how it works: technically, when we breathe, we take in everything in the atmosphere. But our body only uses oxygen; the rest we eliminate when exhaling.
the air of mars
The Martian atmosphere is thin: its volume is only 1% of the Earth’s atmosphere. In other words, there is 99% less air on Mars than on Earth.
This is partly because Mars is half the size of Earth. Its gravity is not strong enough to prevent atmospheric gases from escaping into space.
And the most abundant gas in the Martian air is carbon dioxide. For the inhabitants of the Earth, it is a poisonous gas in high concentrations. Fortunately, it makes up much less than 1% of our atmosphere. But on Mars, carbon dioxide makes up 96% of the air!
Meanwhile, Mars has almost no oxygen; it’s only a tenth of the air, not enough for humans to survive.
If we tried to breathe on the surface of Mars without a space suit to supply us with oxygen – a bad idea – we would die in an instant. We would suffocate, and because of the low atmospheric pressure , our blood would boil, both at about the same time.
life without oxygen
So far, researchers haven’t found any evidence of life on Mars. But the search has only just begun; our robotic probes have barely scratched the surface.
Without a doubt, Mars is an extreme environment. And it’s not just through the air. There is very little liquid water on the Martian surface . Temperatures are incredibly cold : at night, they are below -73℃.
But many organisms on Earth survive in extreme environments . Life has been found in the ice of Antarctica, on the ocean floor, and miles below the Earth’s surface. Many of those places have extremely hot or cold temperatures, almost no water, and little or no oxygen.
And even if life no longer exists on Mars, perhaps it did so billions of years ago, when it had a denser atmosphere, more oxygen , warmer temperatures , and significant amounts of liquid water on the surface .
That’s one of the goals of NASA’s Mars Perseverance mission : to search for signs of ancient Martian life. That’s why Perseverance is searching Martian rocks for fossils of once-living organisms: most likely, primitive life forms, like Martian microbes.
Among the seven instruments aboard the Perseverance rover is MOXIE , an incredible device that extracts carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and converts it to oxygen.
If MOXIE works as scientists hope, future astronauts will not only make their own oxygen, but will be able to use it as a component of the rocket fuel they will need to fly back to Earth. The more oxygen they can make on Mars, the less they will have to bring back from Earth, and the easier it will be for visitors to get there. But even with homegrown oxygen , astronauts will still need a spacesuit.
Right now, NASA is working on the new technologies needed to send humans to Mars . That could happen in the next decade, perhaps sometime in the late 2030s.