Students’ project could create first breathable air on Mars

16 Dec 2014

A team of Australian university students are aiming to create the first breathable air on Mars using the planet’s resources to aid the future Mars One mission.

The group from the University of Western Australia has its sights set on winning the competition opened to applicants by the organisers of the Mars One mission earlier this month, which has left 10 finalists competing to see whose project will be included in the first payload due to land on the red planet in 2018.

Dubbed the Helena Payload, the project co-led by one of the remaining Mars One astronaut candidates, Josh Richards, aims to use the process of electrolysis to extract the oxygen within the water of the Martian soil, inspiring the name Helena after the Shakespearean heroine who ‘breathed life into stone’.

“Our experiment will hopefully pave the way to ensure the survival of the elected astronauts on the red planet, as we attempt to produce oxygen from Martian resources,” said Andre Van Vulpen, co-lead on the project.

The design for the Helena Payload electrolysis machine. Image via

“In addition to the scientific contribution, we are hoping to put together the largest crowdsourced art collection ever sent to another planet, allowing any Earth citizen the opportunity to join us on our trip to Mars, and leave their legacy in truly ‘out of this world’ style.”

While it is fanciful to think that it could lead to oxygen being generated on a scale that could terraform the planet, the apparatus could still contribute enough air to keep the four future astronauts alive when they are due to arrive in 2025.

If the project is chosen as the one to be sent to our nearest neighbour, it will also prove to be a time capsule as the payload will include a radiation-hardened DVD that will be filled with artwork from people of all ages for the planet’s potential future inhabitants.

The team will now have an anxious new year as the winner of the payload competition will be announced 5 January 2015.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic