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The first attempt to produce oxygen on another planet has ended on Mars, after surpassing NASA’s initial goals and demonstrating capabilities that could help future astronauts explore the Red Planet.
A microwave-scale instrument called MOXIE, or the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, is aboard the Perseverance rover.
The The test started Two years ago, just months after the rover landed on Mars. Since then, the MOXIE has produced 122 grams of oxygen, the equivalent of a small dog breathing in 10 hours. NASA. The instrument works by converting Mars’ abundant carbon dioxide into oxygen.
At the peak of its performance, MOXIE produced 12 grams of oxygen per hour at 98% purity or better, more than twice NASA’s goals for the instrument. On August 7, MOXIE met all of its requirements for the 16th and final time.
“We are proud to support breakthrough technology like MOXIE that can transform local resources into useful products for future exploration missions,” Trudy Cortes, director of technical specifications for the Space Technology Directorate at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement. “By demonstrating this technology in real-world conditions, we’re one step closer to a future where astronauts ‘land’ on the Red Planet.”
The thin Martian atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide, which isn’t much help for oxygen-breathing humans. MOXIE works by splitting carbon dioxide molecules, which contain one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. It splits oxygen molecules and releases carbon monoxide as a waste product. As the gases move through the instrument, its system analyzes the purity and level of oxygen.
Because this conversion process requires temperatures of 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (798 degrees Celsius), heat-resistant materials such as gold and airgel were used to build the device. These materials kept the heat from escaping and damaging any part of the rover.
Engineers installed MOXIE into the chassis of the Perseverance Rover in 2019.
One that can convert carbon dioxide into oxygen can help in more ways than one. In the future, bigger and better versions like MOXIE could provide breathable air for life support systems and convert and store oxygen needed for rocket fuel on the return trip to Earth.
“MOXIE’s impressive performance shows that it is possible to extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere — oxygen that could provide future astronauts with breathable air or rocket propellant,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in a statement. “Developing technologies that allow us to harness resources on the Moon and Mars is critical to creating a long-term lunar presence, building a strong lunar economy, and helping us support an initial human exploration campaign to Mars.”
Carrying thousands of pounds of rocket propellant and oxygen on the initial trip from Earth to Mars would be incredibly difficult and expensive, and would mean less space on the spacecraft for other needs. Technologies like MOXIE will enable astronauts to essentially live on land and use the resources in their surroundings.
Lessons learned from the small MOXIE experiment are now being used to develop a full-scale system that includes an oxygen generator that can liquefy and store oxygen.
But the next major step in the process is testing other technologies on Mars that could be explored further, such as instruments and habitat materials.
“We need to make decisions about what things to check on Mars,” MOXIE principal investigator Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in a statement. “I think there are many technologies on that list; I’m so glad MOXIE came first.