Caltech’s new CO2 recycler could be a game-changer for space exploration

How do science fiction movies get away with not having their A-list actors spend the whole time wearing bulky space suits on far-off planets? Simple: They use the trope of terraforming or oxygen generators to explain how it’s possible to walk around on inhospitable planets without a problem. Unfortunately, achieving this in real life is a whole lot more difficult.

But thanks to researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), it may not remain that way forever. Caltech researchers have developed a special reactor that can transform carbon dioxide into molecular oxygen. This could prove to be a potential game-changer for generating oxygen in space.

“Carbon dioxide is a very stable molecule with strong chemical bonds, the main reason why it is extraordinarily difficult to remove reactively from Earth’s atmosphere,” Konstantinos Giapis, professor of chemical engineering, told Digital Trends. “We have developed a way to use kinetic energy to bring the carbon dioxide molecule to its breaking point. This in itself would be unremarkable, as there are other ways to do it with expected results. However, we have discovered that we can twist and bend those sturdy chemical bonds to bring the two oxygen atoms together, close enough to force the carbon dioxide molecule to disintegrate spontaneously, releasing molecular oxygen. This is an unexpected, indeed unfathomable response of the molecule: A true exotic reaction.”

This discovery could have profound implications in a number of areas. Kinetic energy-driven reactions open up new ways to do chemistry with small molecules. In astrophysics, it could help explain the origin of trace amounts of molecular oxygen found in the upper atmosphere of Mars, as well as on early Earth before the onset of primitive life-forms. But perhaps the most exciting application involves potential space travel to Mars.

“Although we have used a large, complex, and heavy reactor to study and prove the reaction, other simpler devices are possible which will produce more oxygen than in the current study,” Giapis said. “We have designed and applied for a patent on a lightweight ‘mug-size’ plasma reactor, which can operate in the low-pressure atmosphere of Mars, possibly serving as an oxygenator device for astronauts strolling its surface.”

Going forward, Giapis said the team aims to optimize a portable plasma device for producing breathable oxygen in a simulated martian atmosphere. They also aim to find ways to carry out more efficient ionization to improve the yield of molecular oxygen.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Emerging Tech

The U.K.’s biggest (and only) asteroid mining company has designs on our skies

Is the founder and CEO of the U.K.'s Asteroid Mining Corporation going to be among the first people to strike it rich in space, or is he just chasing an ambitious but doomed mirage?
Emerging Tech

Want to work in the stars? Here are six future space jobs you could hold

Ever dreamed of leaving Earth to work in the stars? Here's a list of job titles that might sound like science fiction now, but almost certainly won’t a decade or two in the future.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (June 2019)

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Emerging Tech

Bill Nye the Science Guy talks “solar sailing” and the new space race

If successful, The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 will be a milestone in spaceflight, the first craft to raise its orbit around the planet using just the power of sunlight.
Emerging Tech

Hormone boosts could help astronauts from losing muscle on long space journeys

Reduced gravity conditions during space flight missions can cause extreme muscle loss. Special hormone treatments may be able to help. Here's why that's of growing importance for space travel.
Emerging Tech

SpaceX is on a hiring spree for its Starlink global internet project

After a string of delays, SpaceX's Starlink project was finally launched last month. Now an analysis of data from SpaceX's job listings shows the company is on a hiring tear, advertising for more and more positions for the project.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Illuminated keyboards and a retro gaming console

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

Ready to roll: Mars 2020 rover fitted with wheels ahead of mission next year

The Mars 2020 rover is getting ready for its trip to the red planet next year. The latest step in readying the rover is installing its wheels and suspension system, which engineers at NASA have been doing this month.
Emerging Tech

You can help search for aliens with an open access release of SETI data

The Breakthrough Initiatives, a program to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, recently analyzed its first three years of radio telescope data. And all of the data collected is being made publicly available in an open data archive.
Emerging Tech

Tiny galaxy has huge black hole at its center, gives clues to galactic evolution

A Hubble image shows a tiny galaxy which could hold the clue to unraveling a longstanding question about the evolution of galaxies. Despite its small size, it hosts a feature found in much larger galaxies -- a supermassive black hole.
Emerging Tech

Dark matter galaxy crashed into the Milky Way, causing the ripples in its disk

New research suggests hundreds of million of years ago, the Milky Way collided with Antlia 2, a nearby dwarf galaxy dominated by dark matter. The collision caused ripples in the disk of gas around the Milky Way which we still observe today.
Emerging Tech

Uranus’ rings shine brightly but hold a puzzle for astronomers

New images reveal the rings around Uranus, which are almost invisible to most telescopes. But there's a strange puzzle about them -- why they don't contain any small dust-sized particles.
Emerging Tech

U.S. Navy is working on making its fleet invisible to computerized surveillance

The U.S. Navy’s ever-innovative Office of Naval Research is working on a way to turn the United States military fleet invisible. Well, to cutting-edge image-recognition systems, at least.

Apple’s new Seattle campus may mean big things for Siri, artificial intelligence

Apple plans to hire 2,000 more employees for a new Seattle campus, the company announced Monday, with a significant number of those jobs focused on Siri and artificial intelligence.