Learning to Breathe Mars Air (Video)

Article written: 9 May , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

Talk about dedication! Volunteers in Russia are testing the ability of humans to breathe argon-enriched air, as part of a research program that simulates a manned trip to Mars. Researchers want to know if humans can survive breathing air similar to that found on Mars. Of the experiment one Russian scientist said, “Our experiments show that argon combined with the right portion of oxygen is safe for humans. I tested it on myself and I’m OK, and volunteers are also doing fine.” Somehow, I’m not convinced about the rationale and safety of this test. This is preliminary research for the Russian Mars 500 project, which will simulate a manned Mars mission next year.

People will spend 520 days locked in a bunker-like habitation module, creating an environment like a real mission to Mars, which would take about that same amount of time, with round trip and a month spent on Mars.

For the current research, volunteers stayed inside a sealed capsule for ten days at a time, breathing a combination of argon, nitrogen, and oxygen. The TV news report below seems to advocate this type of research, saying that Western researchers “still use mice” for such experiments.

Especially reassuring is the scientist who keeps telling the test subjects, “Breathe calmly!” Take a look:

Original News Source: You Tube


13 Responses

  1. Jorge says

    Somehow, I’m not convinced about the rationale and safety of this test.

    Well, unsurprisingly, the report isn’t clear about the rationale or the safety of the test, but one can think about it.

    First: safety.

    It should be OK, really. Argon is an inert gas that shouldn’t react with our body’s chemistry, much like helium and much like molecular nitrogen. So replacing nitrogen with argon shouldn’t cause any damage at all. And regarding the reduction of oxygen, I suppose they are aiming for something like 3000 or 4000 m partial pressure, which we know that isn’t harmful for humans.

    As for the rationale…

    I guess the problem here is that wereas a Mars mission could produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide collected in Mars, it would have a hard time finding a replacement for nitrogen because there isn’t all that much N2 out there. However, there’s even less argon, about half as much, so I don’t really see the point. The best idea I could come up with is that this might be an attempt to minimize the atmospheric treatements needed to reuse martian gases for breething. If this experiment is successful, they’d just need to get rid of the CO2 and other noxious gases, like carbon monoxide, add O2 in adecuate proportions and pump it in until the adecuate pressure is reached, warm it up a wee bit, and voilà, the atmosphere becomes breathable. It might be it, I don’t know.

  2. MandyDax says

    There are a few problems with argon that I can see right away. Mostly it has to do with mass. The atomic weight of N2 is about 28g/mol, while that of Ar is about 40g/mol, so the densities are at about a 7:10 ratio at the same T and P. Mass is important in space travel, so the lighter gas would make more sense.

    I’d suggest they simply do away with the filler gas altogether. I know that a pure O2 atmosphere was tried in the past, and with tragic results. The difference is that if a pure O2 atmosphere is used, but at a pressure equal to its part in the Earth’s atmosphere, i.e., about 0.2atm, the fire hazard would only be the same as it is in Earth’s atmosphere. This would also effectively reduce the “filler gas” mass to 0, and the cosmonauts would get the same amount in their lungs that they would at sea level on Earth.

    Another advantage of this is that there would be 80% less pressure for the ship to hold in from the vacuum of space. Since Mars’ atmospheric pressure is less than 0.01atm on average, this would make those structures to be made lighter due to less structural reinforcement.

  3. Jorge says

    Mandy, I think the plan is to use nitrogen in transit and a mix of N2 and Ar (plus oxygen, of course) during the stay on the planet. And maybe on the way back as well, I don’t know.

  4. Silver Thread says

    If Nitrogen is simply a filler and we don’t process it, why can we not reuse the same quantity of Nitrogen and add the requisite amount of Oxygen to the ship?

  5. Steve says

    Ummm, did anyone think about the huge pressure differentials when creating this simulation? Breathing martian error is all well and good, but when out inards land in front of us, its kind of pointless

  6. PHWilson says

    The chill down my spine was when the narrator said Americans use mice, as if it were a bravery issue. Look back down the barrel of that gun and you’ll see a clear and unequivical statement on Russian reverence for human life. Damn scary.

  7. Fred says

    Issue might be one of future expansion as well.

    If they can in fact pull useful gases from the atmosphere and convert other found materials into food, fuel, and construction materials then it makes the journey more affordable. Its also a handful of steps closer to true self sufficiency.

    The more things you use from local sources, the less you have to bring and the longer you can stay. Instead of being a one time stunt we can start thinking of mars as a long term outpost… maybe even a near future colony.

  8. If there are any negative effects observed, they might also track what happens with any kids conceived during or after this experiment, too, to see whether the kids have any enhanced adaptability. (Then again, if there are any negative effects, the kids might not volunteer.) But somehow it seems to me unlikely that you could train a person to endure this, and more like all you could do is test a person’s ability to. I’d be more prone to think that if toleration could be developed, it would be through evolutionary adaptation.

  9. Fenring says

    That kind of evolutionary adaptation would take thousands of years for humans and is very unlikely to produce any adaptive benefits at all. One doesn’t always get an advanced abilities by simple exposure to new environment. It’s much more likely for an entire species to go extinct. Those species that do survive are only the lucky few. Evolution works by chance and chances of a small isolated human population developing adaptive abilities for a new kind of atmosphere are slim to none.

    Back on topic. After watching the video it’s clear why this is being tested. It is stated that Marssian atmosphere has plenty of argon (don’t know to what extent this is true). And argon being a noble (innert) gas is perfectly safe. You can’t get less toxic then noble gasses really (except radon which is radioactive), and the risk is minimal, so i don’t see how this test can even remotely be seen as looking down the barrel of a gun.

  10. This is a great idea!

    For those wondering why Argon was chosen instead of Nitrogen (which is more common on Mars), the reason may have to do with the fact that when Nitrogen is heated up with Oxygen, it may be very unhealthy for the human body.

    Argon seems to be safer, thus the reason they use it.

  11. trux says

    Safety?

    That’s no issue, and the comments about the disrespect to human life are ridiculous. First of all, there is almost 1% of Argon in our own atmosphere anyway, so we are pretty used to breath it, although in lower partial pressure. Second, inert gases are commonly used by deep divers. Exposure to them was tested since many decades and often for long periods of time (i.e. underwater habitats). Argon is not used for breathing in scuba just because it has high narcotic effects in depth, but it should not be an issue at low pressures.

    Rationale?

    Quite evident – it allows for easy and cheap breathing gas production on Mars. Note that this atmosphere processing is for the Mars stay, not for the travel, so the comments about atomic weight are irrelevant. The advantage is the composition of Mars atmosphere – after removing the CO2 (95.32%), CO (0.07%), and traces of some other gases, Oxygen (0.13%) and the inert Nitrogen (2.7%) and Argon (1.6%) remain in a composition very well suitable for breathing – with similar partial pressure of Oxygen (~29% instead of ~21%) and inert gases. So all you need is a compressor and filters for the unwanted components. No need for possibly expensive and failure-prone artificial gas mixture with inert gas recycling.

  12. Jorge says

    trux, are you sure about those numbers?

    A few quick calculations around here gave me that after removing all the CO2 and major toxic gases (carbon monoxid and nitrous oxid), you’re left with an atmosphere that’s 60% N2, 35% Ar, only 4.4% O2 and 0.6% H2O.

    This is clearly unbreathable, unless you increase pressure quite a bit.

  13. alphonso richardson says

    IJust watched the vid – love the scientist (Mission lead?) saying he’s tried it on himself. If that’strue, fair play to him! None of that fannying around with mice!
    Seriously (!), while safety is obviously an issue, it seems that Eastern Europe is slightly less ‘risk-averse’ than the West, possibly as the military still has a prominent (if no longer a leading) role in their space programmes.
    This is in contrast to the low -risk, litigation-happy culture the other side.
    Hoever, the downside is when things go wrong, it’s the Devil’s Own job to find out ANYTHING, never mind get these guys to admit to they screwed up.
    Still, if they want to do that to themselves &it adds to research (great deal of material has always been garnered by our mistakes and, unfortunately, tragedies), let ’em.

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