NASA announced on Wednesday that it had achieved another extraterrestrial first on its new mission to Mars: turning carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into breathable and clean, oxygen. On April 20, a technology demonstration took place, with the hope that future models of the experimental instrument used will pave the way for future human exploration. “This is a crucial first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” NASA’s space technology mission directorate associate administrator Jim Reuter said.
While the technology demonstration is still in its early stages, it has the potential to transform science fiction into reality by isolating and storing oxygen on Mars to power rockets that could carry astronauts off the planet’s surface. These devices could also provide breathable air for astronauts in the future. Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment (MOXIE), like the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) weather station, is an exploration technology inquiry funded by Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
The toaster-sized instrument called MOXIE produced about 5 grams of oxygen in its first activation, NASA said. That’s about 10 minutes of breathing for an astronaut. Although the initial results were reasonable, the achievement marked the first experimental exploitation of natural resources from another planet’s ecosystem for direct human use.
It’s called a “mechanical tree” because it splits carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of two oxygen atoms and one carbon atom, using electricity and chemistry. MOXIE’s engineers will now conduct additional tests to improve its performance. It’s supposed to be able to produce 10 grams of oxygen per hour.
MOXIE was created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology using heat-resistant materials such as nickel alloy and was designed to withstand the extreme temperatures of 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius) needed for it to operate. It has a thin gold coating to prevent it from radiating heat and harming the rover.
MIT engineer Michael Hecht said a one-ton version of MOXIE could produce the approximately 55,000 pounds (25 tons) of oxygen needed for a rocket to blast off from Mars. Producing oxygen from Mars’ 96 percent carbon dioxide atmosphere might be a more feasible option than extracting ice from under its surface then electrolyzing it to make oxygen.
The instrument operates by electrolysis, which utilizes high heat to remove oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which make up about 95 percent of Mars’ atmosphere. The remaining 5% of Mars’ atmosphere is mostly molecular nitrogen and argon, despite the fact that it is just around 1% as thick as Earth’s. On Mars, there is just a trace amount of oxygen.
However, an abundant supply is considered essential for future human exploration of Mars, both as a source of breathable air for astronauts and as a component of rocket fuel to transport them home.
This technology exhibition was intended to guarantee that the instrument survived the launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month journey into deep space, and the touchdown with Perseverance on February 18. Over the course of a Martian year, MOXIE is supposed to remove oxygen at least nine more times (nearly two years on Earth).
There will be three stages to these oxygen-production runs. The first step will test and define the instrument’s functionality, while the second will put it through its paces in a variety of atmospheric conditions, such as various times of day and seasons. “We’ll push the envelope” in the third step, according to Hecht, by experimenting with new operating modes or adding “new wrinkles, such as a run where we compare operations at three or more different temperatures.”