The growing list of “firsts” for Perseverance, NASA’s newest six-wheeled robot on the Martian surface, now includes converting part of the Red Planet’s thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen.
An experimental instrument the size of a toaster aboard Perseverance called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) accomplished the task Tuesday.
While the technology demonstration is just beginning, it could pave the way for science fiction to become science fact: isolating and storing oxygen on Mars to help power rockets that could lift astronauts off the planet’s surface. These devices could also one day provide breathable air for the astronauts themselves.
“This is a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter of NASA. in a sentence. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results of this technology demonstration are promising as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen is not just what we breathe. The rocket’s propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on propellant production on Mars to make the trip home. “
To burn its fuel, a rocket must have more oxygen by weight. Taking four astronauts off the Martian surface on a future mission would require approximately 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen.
In contrast, astronauts living and working on Mars would need much less oxygen to breathe. “Astronauts who spend a year on the surface may use a metric ton of each other,” Hecht said.
Transporting 25 metric tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars would be a daunting task. Hauling a one-ton oxygen converter, a larger and more powerful descendant of MOXIE that could produce those 25 tons, would be much more economical and practical.
The atmosphere of Mars is 96% carbon dioxide. MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. A waste product, carbon monoxide, is emitted into the Martian atmosphere.
The conversion process requires high levels of heat to reach a temperature of approximately 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius). To accommodate this, the MOXIE unit is made of heat-tolerant materials. These include 3D-printed nickel alloy parts, which heat and cool the gases that flow through them, and a lightweight airgel that helps retain heat. A thin layer of gold on the exterior of MOXIE reflects infrared heat, preventing it from radiating outward and potentially damaging other parts of Perseverance.
In this first operation, MOXIE’s oxygen production was quite modest, around 5 grams, equivalent to about 10 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut. MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.
This technology demonstration was designed to ensure that the instrument survived the launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month journey through deep space. MOXIE is expected to extract at least nine times more oxygen over the course of a Martian year (nearly two years on Earth).
“MOXIE is not just the first instrument to produce oxygen in another world,” said NASA’s Trudy Kortes. It is the first technology of its kind that will help future missions to “live off the land,” using elements of the otherworldly environment, also known as utilization of on-site resources.
“Regolith, the substance found in the soil, is taken and passed through a processing plant, turning it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide, most of the atmosphere, and turning it into oxygen.” He said. “This process allows us to turn these abundant materials into usable things: propellant, breathable air or, combined with hydrogen, water.”
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