Curious Kids: Could people breathe the air on Mars? | Kiowa County Press

Artist’s impression of an astronaut walking on Mars. But what if the astronaut was not wearing a space helmet?
cokada/E+ via Getty Images

Phylindia Glove, University of Florida and Amy J. Williams, University of Florida


curious children is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to [email protected]


Could people breathe on Mars? – Jack J., 7, Alexandria, Virginia


Suppose you are an astronaut who has just landed on Mars. What would you need to survive?

To start, here’s a short list: water, food, shelter – and oxygen.

Oxygen is in the air we breathe here on Earth. Plants and certain types of bacteria provide it to us.

But oxygen is not the only gas present in the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s not even the most abundant. In fact, only 21% of our air is made up of oxygen. Most of the rest is nitrogen – about 78%.

Now you might be wondering: if there is more nitrogen in the air, why are we breathing oxygen?

Here’s how it works: Technically, when you inhale, you absorb everything in the atmosphere. But your body only uses oxygen; you get rid of the rest when you exhale.

Empty landscape with rocks in the foreground and sandy hills in the background.
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover captured this image of the dark and arid Martian landscape.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Air on Mars

The Martian atmosphere is thin – its volume is only 1% of Earth’s atmosphere. In other words, there is 99% less air on Mars than on Earth.

That’s partly because Mars is about half the size of Earth. Its gravity is not strong enough to prevent atmospheric gases from escaping into space.

And the most abundant gas in this thin air is carbon dioxide. For people on Earth, it is a poisonous gas in high concentration. Fortunately, it makes up far less than 1% of our atmosphere. But on Mars, carbon dioxide represents 96% of the air!

Meanwhile, Mars has almost no oxygen; it’s only a tenth of one percent of the air, not enough for humans to survive.

If you tried to breathe on the surface of Mars without a spacesuit supplying your oxygen – bad idea – you would die in an instant. You would choke, and due to low atmospheric pressureyour blood would boil, both at about the same time.

Billions of years ago, Mars’ Jezero Crater was home to an ancient lake.

life without oxygen

So far, researchers have found no evidence of life on Mars. But the research has only just begun; our robotic probes barely scratched the surface.

Without a doubt, Mars is an extreme environment. And it’s not just looks. Very little liquid water is on the martian surface. Temperatures are incredibly cold – at night it is over -100 degrees Fahrenheit (-73 degrees Celsius).

But many organisms on Earth survive extreme environments. Life has been found in the ice of Antarctica, at the bottom of the ocean and miles below the Earth’s surface. Many of these places have extremely hot or cold temperatures, almost no water, and little or no oxygen.

And even though life no longer exists on Mars, maybe billions of years ago when it had a thicker atmosphere, more oxygen, warmer temperatures and large amounts of liquid water on the surface.

This is one of the objectives of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover mission – search for signs of ancient Martian life. That’s why Perseverance searches Martian rocks for fossils of organisms that once lived – most likely, primitive life, like Martian microbes.

A rust-colored rocky landscape surrounds NASA's Perseverance Mars rover as it rests on Martian soil.
On the 198th day of its mission, NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took this selfie.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Do-it-yourself oxygen

From seven instruments on board the Perseverance rover is MOXIEan incredible device that extracts carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and turns it into oxygen.

If MOXIE works as scientists hope, future astronauts won’t just make their own oxygen; they could use it as a component in the rocket fuel they will need to get back to Earth. The more oxygen people are able to make on Mars, the less they’ll need to bring from Earth – and the easier it becomes for visitors to get there. But even with “homemade” oxygen, astronauts will still need a spacesuit.

Currently, NASA is working on the new technologies needed to send humans to mars. It could happen within the next decade, maybe in the late 2030s. By then, you’ll be an adult – and maybe one of the first to step on Mars.

See what a human mission to Mars would look like.


Hello, curious little ones! Do you have a question you would like an expert to answer? Have an adult send your question to [email protected] Please let us know your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age – adults, let us know your questions too. We cannot answer all questions, but we will do our best.

The conversation

Phylindia GlovePh.D. Student in Geological Sciences, University of Florida and Amy J. Williamsassistant professor of geology, University of Florida

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

About Florence M. Sorensen

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