NASA rover makes enough breathable oxygen on Mars to sustain a dog for 10 hours

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 be used as a key ingredient in 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 boots 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 major 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 atmosphere that envelops Mars is composed of less than one percent oxygen, 96 percent carbon dioxide, with nitrogen, argon and countless trace gases making up the rest.

Enter NASA’s Perseverance rover, which will land in Jezero Crater on Mars in 2021 bringing with it a technology demonstration called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, for short. MOXIE is a microwave-sized instrument that uses a device called an electrolyzer to split carbon dioxide molecules collected from the Martian atmosphere into pure oxygen and waste products such as carbon monoxide.

The technology demonstration has been run intermittently since shortly after the rover’s 2021 landfall, and most recently completed its 16th and final run early last month. MOXIE was once able to produce oxygen at a rate of about 12 grams per hour, and has now produced a grand total of 122 grams of the precious gas.

The amount created, roughly the amount a small dog would breathe out in 10 hours, according to NASA, was twice the amount scientists had originally aimed for, and was at least 98 percent pure. 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 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 utilize resources on the Moon and Mars is critical to building a long-term lunar presence, creating a robust lunar economy, and allowing us to support an initial human exploration campaign 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 journey back to Earth. For this reason, a much larger version of MOXIE will be needed to service a future Mars mission, along with a host of other technologies that will be developed and tested on Earth and the 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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