NASA’s Perseverance spacecraft has successfully completed an experiment designed to produce oxygen on Mars, using technology that could one day provide astronauts with breathable air and could be used as a key component of rocket fuel for the journey home.
Humanity is looking to expand deeper into the Solar System, first by establishing a permanent base on the Moon, before finally putting human shoes on Mars for the first time in our species’ short history. For this to become a reality, NASA and its partners need to develop new technologies that will take advantage of the natural resources of those distant worlds to ensure future missions are as self-reliant as possible.
One of the main problems faced by astronauts visiting Mars is ensuring they have a ready supply of breathable air. Oxygen on Earth is relatively abundant, making up about 21% of our planet’s atmosphere. However, the gaseous envelope that envelops Mars is made up of less than one percent oxygen, 96 percent carbon dioxide, with nitrogen, argon, and a myriad of trace gases making up the rest.
✅ JOB DONE FOR MY MOXIE TOOL!
I brought this device to test the production of oxygen from the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars, and it worked great. This technology could pave the way for future explorers to make their own rocket fuel and breathable air. 🚀
– NASA Mars Persevere rover (@NASAPersevere) September 7, 2023
Enter NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down at Jezero Crater on Mars in 2021 bringing with it a technology demonstration called the Mars Oxygen Resources In Situ Experiment, or MOXIE, for short. MOXIE is a microwave-sized instrument that uses a device called an electrolyser to split carbon dioxide molecules collected from the Martian atmosphere into pure oxygen and waste products like carbon monoxide.
The technology demo has been running intermittently since shortly after the spacecraft’s 2021 landfall, and recently completed its 16th and final run early last month. MOXIE was able to produce oxygen at a rate of about 12 grams per hour, and has now produced a total of 122 grams of the precious gas.
The resulting amount, which is approximately the amount a small dog breathes in 10 hours, According to NASAIt was twice what the scientists originally aimed for, and its purity was at least 98 percent. Besides being breathable, oxygen can also be used as a key ingredient in creating rocket fuel, without which astronauts would either be stranded on the Red Planet indefinitely, or have to wait for a resupply from Earth.
“MOXIE’s impressive performance shows that it is possible to extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere – oxygen that could help provide breathable air or rocket fuel for future astronauts,” explained NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Milroy. “Developing technologies that allow us to use resources on the Moon and Mars is critical to building a long-term lunar presence, establishing a strong lunar economy, and allowing us to support the initial human exploration expedition to Mars.”
NASA estimates that astronauts will need about 25 to 30 tons of oxygen in order to produce the fuel needed to launch from the surface of the Red Planet on the return trip to Earth. For this reason, a much larger version of MOXIE will be required to serve a future Mars mission, along with a host of other technologies that will be developed and tested on the Earth and Moon in the coming decades.
Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and video game news for IGN. He has over eight years of experience covering breaking developments in multiple scientific fields and has absolutely no time to fool you. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
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