The Technology Transfer and Partnerships Office
Extraction of Resources from Atmospheres
ROxygen I Oxygen Production Plant with an Inclined Auger RFS being Field Tested on Mauna Kea Volcano in Hawaii (2010)
The landing of the Cassini-Huygens probe on Titan confirmed the presence of water ice and hydrocarbons and nitrogen in the atmosphere (Image credit: ESA)

Most solid surface planets and large moons (e.g., Europa, Titan, Ganymede) have an atmosphere and the giant gas planets of the outer solar system make gases an abundant source of chemical compounds in the solar system. The early dynamics of the formation of the solar system from a vast cloud of gas and the subsequent evolution of solid objects through collisions, and geological activity have produced an astounding diversity of atmospheres.


Oxygen is widely distributed in atmospheres throughout the solar system. This is good news for ISRU but it is also bound to other elements in most cases. Venus holds oxygen as carbon dioxide (CO2) but the crushing surface pressures (93 times that of Earth) and temperatures above 460ºC (860ºF) prohibit long stays on the surface for robotic craft. By contrast, the Martian atmosphere of CO2 is cold and its low density (160 times less than Earth’s) presents challenges to capture and extract oxygen in large quantities. Ganymede and Europa, moons of Jupiter have atmospheres of pure oxygen but so rarefied that they can be labeled a vacuum, a situation also found on Mercury and Rhea, a moon of Saturn.


Nitrogen is remarkably abundant and accessible in several atmospheres. Present as the second most abundant gas on Mars and Venus, it is the main gas on the Saturnian moon Titan (more than 94%) where the pressure is 1.2 times that of Earth’s. The presence of water ice, hydrocarbon gases and liquids makes Titan a place where ISRU may play a role in the future for long duration surface missions exploring the possibility of prebiotic environments and microbial life.


Hydrocarbons such as methane (CH4), ethane (C2H6) are of interest because they can be used as propellant fuels in rocket engines and can be the basis for further chemical reactions to produce polymeric chains for plastics, lubricants, sealants, etc. Much interest is devoted to reacting CO2 with hydrogen to form methane on Mars for these purposes. Titan is a vast repository of such hydrocarbons as gases, liquids and ice and the presence of water ice make such chemical processing a possibility for ISRU.


The current ISRU technology development project focuses on the Martian atmosphere to extract oxygen and nitrogen and transform CO2 into propellant fuels.


Oxygen & Carbon Dioxide (Mars)


The Martian atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide may prove to be a critical asset to refuel surface spacecraft on the red planet and make human missions more self-reliant
The Martian atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide may prove to be a critical asset to refuel surface spacecraft on the red planet and make human missions more self-reliant (Image credit: JPL/KSC B. Hardman)