by spaceX

For a while now, mankind has set its eyes on exploring the red planet. Not only does researching Mars offer endless possibilities, but it also provides us with a deeper understanding of the secrets of the universe. For many scientists, the red planet is the future, and they are doing everything within their power to reach it. Thus, NASA just achieved yet another milestone in unraveling the universe’s mysteries by creating breathable air on Mars.

The MOXIE experiment

NASA’s MOXIE instrument is turning fiction into reality. Though the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment is barely the size of a toaster aboard the Perseverance, the experimental instrument succeeded in being the first technology to create breathable air. In brief, the device managed to split Mars’s CO2 molecules into their component parts. Therefore, it didn’t only create almost 10 minutes’ worth of breathable oxygen, but it also created a tiny amount of rocket fuel.  It’s like “an electrical tree,” says principal investigator Michael Hecht of MIT. “We breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen.”

However, the mechanics are more complicated. Since Mars’s atmosphere is 96% made of carbon dioxide, MOXIE separates the molecules to oxygen while also emitting carbon monoxide into the Martian atmosphere. Furthermore, because this process requires a temperature of approximately 800 Celsius, the device is made out of nickel alloy parts covered by a thin gold coating. 

MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within STMD. It’s the first technology of its kind that will help future missions “live off the land,” using elements of another world’s environment, also known as in-situ resource utilization.

“It’s taking regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and putting it through a processing plant, making it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide – the bulk of the atmosphere – and converting it into oxygen,” she said. “This process allows us to convert these abundant materials into useable things: propellant, breathable air, or, combined with hydrogen, water.”

MOXIE’s main goal

Though creating breathable air is a huge feat, it is not the device’s main purpose. Scientists designed MOXIE to create 10 minutes’ worth of oxygen per hour. Thus, in a way, it doesn’t create enough breathable air for survival. However, oxygen has other irreplaceable values. It can fuel the journey back home. 

“When we burn anything, gas in the car or a log in the fireplace, most of what we’re burning is oxygen,” Hecht says. Thus, we take it for granted. “It’s free here. We don’t think about it.”

When burning the fuel, the oxygen amount must outweigh that of the rocket. Therefore, the journey home from Mars will require almost 7 metric tons of rocket fuel and almost 25 metric tons of oxygen. Transporting this amount of oxygen to ensure a safe return is very hard and almost impossible. Hence, with MOXIE, astronauts will only need to bring one metric ton of oxygen to survive a year on Mars instead of 26.

“When we send humans to Mars, we will want them to return safely, and to do that they need a rocket to lift off the planet. Liquid oxygen propellant is something we could make there and not have to bring with us. One idea would be to bring an empty oxygen tank and fill it up on Mars,” he added.

Future indications

According to Hecht, the scaled-up version of MOXIE will be able to work continuously for 26 months before astronauts’ arrival. Thus, it will secure their way back home even before leaving. Moreover, MOXIE’s success will provide the world with a permanent research station and facilities on Mars, like the McMurdo station in Antarctica. It will be a setting stone for all future martian experiments.  “That’s not something I expect to see in my lifetime, but something I expect to see progress towards in my lifetime,” he says. “MOXIE brings it closer by a decade.”

Lastly, though MOXIE won’t run continuously due to the need of preserving the Perseverance power and utilizing it elsewhere, NASA scientists plan to test it at least nine more times throughout the next Martian year.

References:

Amos, J. (2021, April 22). Nasa’s rover makes breathable oxygen on Mars. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-56844601K. (2021, April 24). NASA’s Perseverance rover split CO2 to make breathable air on Mars. Science News. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/nasa-perseverance-rover-mars-oxygen-air#:%7E:text=NASA’s%20Perseverance%20rover%20just%20created,tiny%20amounts%20of%20rocket%20fuel.M. (n.d.). Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). NASA Mars. Retrieved April 30, 2021, from https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/spacecraft/instruments/moxie/Potter, S. (2021, April 23). NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover Extracts First Oxygen from Red Planet. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-s-perseverance-mars-rover-extracts-first-oxygen-from-red-planet/