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Science fiction stories are chock full of terraforming schemes and oxygen generators for a very good reason—we humans need molecular oxygen (O2) to breathe, and space is essentially devoid of it. Even on other planets with thick atmospheres, O2 is hard to come by.
So, when we explore space, we need to bring our own oxygen supply. That is not ideal because a lot of energy is needed to hoist things into space atop a rocket, and once the supply runs out, it is gone.
Place - Oxygen - Earth - Wisps - Gas
One place molecular oxygen does appear outside of Earth is in the wisps of gas streaming off comets. The source of that oxygen remained a mystery until two years ago when Konstantinos P. Giapis, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, and his postdoctoral fellow Yunxi Yao, proposed the existence of a new chemical process that could account for its production. Giapis, along with Tom Miller, professor of chemistry, have now demonstrated a new reaction for generating oxygen that Giapis says could help humans explore the universe and perhaps even fight climate change at home. More fundamentally though, he says the reaction represents a new kind of chemistry discovered by studying comets.
Most chemical reactions require energy, which is typically provided as heat. Giapis's research shows that some unusual reactions can occur by providing kinetic energy. When water molecules are shot like extremely tiny bullets onto surfaces containing oxygen, such as sand or rust, the water molecule can rip off that oxygen to produce molecular oxygen. This reaction occurs on comets when water molecules vaporize from the surface and are then accelerated by the solar wind until they crash back into the comet at high speed.
Comets - Carbon - Dioxide - CO2 - Giapis
Comets, however, also emit carbon dioxide (CO2). Giapis and Yao wanted to test if CO2 could also produce molecular oxygen in collisions with...
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