NASA’s Perseverance rover continues to make history. The six-wheeled robot converted some carbon dioxide from Mars’ atmosphere into oxygen, the first time this has happened on another planet, the space agency said Wednesday.
“This is a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide into oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s directorate for space technology missions.
The technology demonstration took place on April 20, and it is hoped that future versions of the experimental instrument used would pave the way for future human exploration.
Not only can the process produce oxygen so that future astronauts can breathe, but it can also eliminate the need to extract large amounts of oxygen from Earth to use as rocket propellant for the return journey.
The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment – or MOXIE – is a gold box the size of a car battery and located in the front right of the rover.
Called a “mechanical tree”, it uses electricity and chemistry to split carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms.
It also produces carbon monoxide as a byproduct.
During the first run, MOXIE produced 5 grams of oxygen, which is equivalent to about 10 minutes of breathing oxygen for an astronaut performing normal activities.
MOXIE engineers will now run more tests and try to increase the output. It is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.
Designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MOXIE is made of heat resistant materials such as nickel alloy and designed to endure the searing temperatures of 800 degrees Celsius (1,470 degrees Fahrenheit) required to operate.
A thin gold coating keeps it from radiating its heat and damaging the rover.
MIT engineer Michael Hecht said a one-ton version of MOXIE could produce the roughly 55,000 pounds (25 tons) of oxygen needed to launch a missile off Mars.
Producing oxygen from Mars’ 96 percent carbon dioxide atmosphere may be a more viable option than extracting ice beneath the surface and then electrolyzing it to make oxygen.
Perseverance landed on the Red Planet on February 18 on a mission to look for signs of microbial life.
His mini-helicopter Ingenuity made history this week by making the first powered flight on another planet.
The rover itself has also recorded the sounds of Mars directly for the first time.
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