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The first experiment to produce oxygen on another planet on Mars has ended after exceeding initial NASA goals and demonstrating capabilities that could help future astronauts explore the Red Planet.
A microwave-sized instrument called MOXIE, or Mars In Situ Oxygen Resources Experiment, is aboard Perseverance.
The experiment began more than two years ago, a few months after the rover landed on Mars. Since then, Moxie has produced 122 grams of oxygen, which is the equivalent of what a small dog breathes in 10 hours, according to NASA. The instrument works by converting some of the carbon dioxide, which is abundant on Mars, into oxygen.
During its peak efficiency, MOXIE produced 12 grams of oxygen per hour with a purity of 98% or better, double the NASA limit for the instrument. On August 7, MOXIE was run for the 16th and final time, having completed all of its requirements.
“We are proud to support advanced technology like MOXIE that can turn local resources into useful products for future exploration missions,” Trudy Curtis, director of technology offerings for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement. “By demonstrating this technology in real-world conditions, we are one step closer to a future in which astronauts live outside Earth on the Red Planet.”
The thin Martian atmosphere is made up of 96% carbon dioxide, which isn’t much help for humans who breathe oxygen. MOXIE works by splitting carbon dioxide molecules, which include one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. It separates oxygen molecules and releases carbon monoxide as a waste product. As the gases move through the device, its system analyzes the purity and quantity of oxygen.
Refractory materials, such as gold plating and aerogel, were used to make the tool because this transformation process requires temperatures of up to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (798 degrees Celsius). These materials prevent heat from spreading and damaging any aspect of the vehicle.
Engineers installed MOXIE inside the chassis of the Perseverance vehicle in 2019.
Something that can efficiently convert carbon dioxide into oxygen can help in more ways than one. Bigger and better versions of something like MOXIE could in the future supply life support systems with breathable air and convert and store the oxygen needed for launch rocket fuel on the journey back to 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 propellants for future astronauts,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Milroy said in a statement. “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.”
Transporting thousands of pounds of rocket fuel and oxygen on the first trip from Earth to Mars would be very difficult and expensive and would mean less space on spacecraft for other essentials. Technology like MOXIE can help astronauts live off Earth and take advantage of the resources in their surroundings.
Lessons from the small MOXIE experiment can now be used to create a full-scale system that includes an oxygen generator that can also liquefy and store oxygen.
But the next major step in this process is to test other technologies on Mars that can lead to further exploration, such as tools and habitation materials.
“We have to make decisions about things to validate on Mars,” Michael Hecht, principal investigator for MOXIE at MIT, said in a statement. “I think there are many technologies on that list; I’m so glad MOXIE was the first.