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Could people breathe the air on Mars?

An artist's concept of an astronaut walking on Mars. But what would happen if the astronaut weren't wearing a space helmet? (Image credit: cokada/E+ via Getty Images)

This article was originally published at The Conversation. (opens in new tab) The publication contributed the article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Phylindia Gant (opens in new tab), Ph.D. Student in Geological Sciences, University of Florida
Amy J. Williams (opens in new tab), Assistant Professor of Geology, University of Florida

Could people breathe on Mars? — Jack J., age 7, Alexandria, Virginia

Let's suppose you were an astronaut who just landed on the planet Mars. What would you need to survive?

For starters, here's a short list: Water, food, shelter — and oxygen.

Oxygen is in the air we breathe here on Earth. Plants and some kinds of bacteria provide it for us.

Related: 12 amazing photos from the Perseverance rover's 1st year on Mars

But oxygen is not the only gas in the Earth's atmosphere. It's 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 might be wondering: If there's more nitrogen in the air, why do we breathe oxygen?

Here's how it works: Technically, when you breathe in, you take in everything that's in the atmosphere. But your body uses only the oxygen; you get rid of the rest when you exhale.

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover captured this image of the bleak and barren Martian landscape. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

The air on Mars

The Martian atmosphere is thin — its volume is only 1% of the Earth's atmosphere. To put it another way, there's 99% less air on Mars than on Earth.

That's partly because Mars is about half the size of Earth. Its gravity isn't strong enough to keep atmospheric gases from escaping into space.

And the most abundant gas in that thin air is carbon dioxide. For people on Earth, that's a poisonous gas at high concentrations. Fortunately, it makes up far less than 1% of our atmosphere. But on Mars, carbon dioxide is 96% of the air!

Meanwhile, Mars has almost no oxygen; it's only one-tenth of 1% of the air, not nearly enough for humans to survive.

If you tried to breathe on the surface of Mars without a spacesuit supplying your oxygen — bad idea — you would die in an instant. You would suffocate, and because of the low atmospheric pressure (opens in new tab), your blood would boil, both at about the same time.

Life without oxygen

So far, researchers have not found any evidence of life on Mars. But the search is just beginning; our robotic probes have barely scratched the surface.

Without question, Mars is an extreme environment. And it's not just the air. Very little liquid water is on the Martian surface (opens in new tab)Temperatures are incredibly cold (opens in new tab) — at night, it's more than minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 73 degrees Celsius).

But plenty of organisms on Earth survive extreme environments (opens in new tab). Life has been found in the Antarctic ice, at the bottom of the ocean and miles below the Earth's surface. Many of those places have extremely hot or cold temperatures, almost no water and little to no oxygen.

On the 198th day of its mission, NASA's Perseverance Mars rover took this selfie. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

And even if life no longer exists on Mars, maybe it did billions of years ago, when it had a thicker atmosphere, more oxygen (opens in new tab)warmer temperatures (opens in new tab) and significant amounts of liquid water on the surface (opens in new tab).

That's one of the goals of NASA's Mars Perseverance rover mission (opens in new tab) — to look for signs of ancient Martian life. That's why Perseverance is searching within the Martian rocks for fossils of organisms that once lived — most likely, primitive life, like Martian microbes.

Do-it-yourself oxygen

Among the seven instruments on board (opens in new tab) the Perseverance rover is MOXIE (opens in new tab), an incredible device that takes carbon dioxide out of the Martian atmosphere and turns it into oxygen.

If MOXIE works the way that scientists hope it will, future astronauts will not only make their own oxygen; they could use it as a component in the rocket fuel they'll need to fly back to Earth. The more oxygen people are able to make on Mars, the less they'll need to bring from Earth — and the easier it becomes for visitors to go 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 (opens in new tab). That could happen in the next decade, perhaps sometime during the late 2030s. By then, you'll be an adult — and maybe one of the first to take a step on Mars.

This article is republished from The Conversation (opens in new tab) under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article (opens in new tab).

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Ph.D. Student in Geological Sciences, University of Florida

I am currently a first year geology PhD Student at the University of Florida. Under the tutelage of phenomenal scientist, Dr. Amy Williams, I am studying iron reducing bacteria as a biological marker for life on Mars.