AI robot uses Mars meteorite to make oxygen from water

Robots have used Mars meteorite to make oxygen out of water. This combines the chemical discoveries made by artificial intelligence with exploration and populating the red planet.

The automated experiment increases the likelihood of future manned space missions being sustained, says the paper that was published Monday in Nature Synthesis. The authors estimate that it would take 2,000 years for humans to reach the same results by trial and mistake.

The AI Robot used the rock samples as catalysts — substances that speed up chemical reactions — in order to produce oxygen out of water. The research, by a multidisciplinary group at the University of Science and Technology of China, in the eastern city of Hefei taps into the rapidly growing interest in colonisation of space and the possible exploitation of extraterrestrial resource.

The biggest implication of this research is that an AI-guided robotic system can produce useful chemicals under unknown conditions and with unknown materials,” stated Prof Jun Jiang. He is also a coauthor of the Nature Synthesis article. “My dream would be to send robots to the Moon and use local resources to create the chemicals and materials needed for humans.”

Charles Cockell is a professor of astrobiology from the University of Edinburgh who wasn’t involved in the study. This is an exciting example of how robots can be sent to Mars to extract minerals that catalyze oxygen production from the abundant Martian Ice, making it possible to build a self-sustaining permanent settlement.

Researchers asked their robot to create materials that could produce oxygen from the water sources found on Mars. The automated chemist was given five different samples of meteorites to design a catalyst.

In six weeks, the robot analyzed 243 experimental data and nearly 30,000 simulations in order to select and synthesize a six-metal catalyst from 3,764,376 formulas. Researchers successfully carried out the experiment in temperatures as low as minus 37C on Mars. The researchers demonstrated that they could control the operation remotely by setting up similar laboratories in three Chinese towns hundreds of kilometers apart.

The video that accompanies the paper shows an AI chemist shuffle between workstations in order to create the materials necessary to generate oxygen. This scene is reminiscent of the 1972 movie Silent Running where the robot Dewey cares for the final remnants of Earth’s life-giving forest while in a capsule speeding through deep space.

AI and space science are becoming increasingly important to countries like China and the US. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, has had long-term plans to send a spacecraft to Mars.

There are still many obstacles that need to be overcome before we can colonise other planets. In order to manufacture and conduct remote AI labs, it would be necessary to have high-performance computing power and process efficiency. This could either be in situ or on another planet. The Mars set-ups will have to be able to withstand much higher radiation levels than those that penetrate Earth’s atmospheric shield.

Dr Stephen Thompson, an expert in planetary science at Diamond Light Source (the UK particle accelerator), said that the Martian rock research raised many intriguing possibilities. One possibility is that an AI lab could serve as a “filling station” interstellar for spacecraft, by capturing the hydrogen left after oxygen extraction from water.

Thompson said that the paper represents another advancement in the rapidly developing field of AI materials discovery.

Thompson stated that “AI has made great strides due to its ability to process enormous amounts of data.” It’s extremely efficient at identifying new materials, which would take humans years and years to accomplish.

Mark Symes of the University of Glasgow’s Department of Electrochemistry and Electrochemical Technology said that the research was “really awesome” because it combined chemistry, robots, and software design.

Symes wrote a separate comment on the research that was also published in Nature Synthesis. We will need materials no matter where we live, and we’ll get them by chemistry.