Ever since NASA reached the surface of Mars in February, it has earned the admiration for doing feats only sci-fi believed possible, like flying a helicopter there, which it did this week. The groundbreaking Mars rover has now added another spring to its cap.
The US space agency announced that on Tuesday a device aboard the rover could produce oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere for the first time – a development that has caused a stir in the scientific community as it promises hope for future crewed missions rely on this technology to enable astronauts to breathe and return to Earth.
How did endurance produce oxygen on Mars?
In its first operation since arriving on the Red Planet, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) produced 5 grams of oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, enough for an astronaut to breathe for 10 minutes.
On Mars, carbon dioxide makes up ~ 96% of the gas in the planet’s atmosphere. Oxygen is only 0.13% compared to 21% in the earth’s atmosphere. Like a tree on earth, MOXIE inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen.
To generate oxygen, MOXIE separates oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules. Heat at a temperature of around 800 degrees Celsius is used and carbon monoxide is also generated as a waste product, which is released in the Martian atmosphere.
MOXIE is a technology demonstrator that generates up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour and is housed in the Perseverance rover. It is the size of a car battery and weighs 17.1 kg on Earth, but only 6.41 kg on Mars.
Through its first successful run, MOXIE was able to prove that it survived its start from Earth, an almost seven-month journey through space, and landed with perseverance on the surface of Mars. Over the next two years, MOXIE is expected to extract oxygen nine more times.
MOXIE is just a test model. Future oxygen generators, derived from their technology, will have to be around 100 times larger to support human missions on Mars.
But why is it so important to produce oxygen on the red planet?
A significant amount of oxygen on Mars is essential for crewed missions to get there – not only so astronauts can breathe, but also so that rockets can be used as fuel when they return to Earth.
According to NASA’s press release, a future mission to launch four astronauts from Mars would require about 7 tons of rocket fuel and 25 tons of oxygen – about the weight of an entire space shuttle. In contrast, astronauts living and working on Mars would need much less oxygen to breathe, perhaps a ton.
Scientists believe that transporting the 25 tons of oxygen for the return journey from Earth to Mars will be an enormous challenge, and that their work would be a lot easier if the liquefied oxygen could be produced on the Red Planet. This is where the role of MOXIE comes in.
“When we send people to Mars, we want them to return safely, and to do that they need a rocket to take off from the planet. We can produce liquid oxygen propellant there and do not have to bring it with us. One idea would be to bring an empty oxygen tank and fill it up on Mars, ”said Michael Hecht, MOXIE’s Principal Investigator.
NASA hopes to build a larger technological descendant of the experimental MOXIE that can do the job. A 1 ton oxygen converter of this type would be much more economical and practical to bring to Mars instead of 25 tons of oxygen, the agency argues.
Jim Reuter, assistant administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), described MOXIE’s accomplishment as “a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars”.
“MOXIE still has a lot to do, but the results of this technology demonstration look promising as we get closer to our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket fuel depends on oxygen, and future explorers will rely on producing fuel on Mars to make the journey home. “