The rover successfully converted some of the abundant carbon dioxide on Mars into oxygen on Tuesday as a first test of its MOXIE instrument. The name MOXIE is short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment.
After about two hours of warming up, MOXIE produced 5.4 grams of oxygen. This is enough to keep an astronaut alive for about 10 minutes.
The instrument is about the size of a toaster and it is a technology demonstration installed on the rover. If this experiment is successful, it could aid human exploration of Mars in the future.
Mars’ thin atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide, which doesn’t help much for people who breathe oxygen.
Something that can efficiently convert that carbon dioxide into oxygen can help in more ways than one. Larger and better versions of something like MOXIE could in the future convert and store oxygen needed for rocket fuel, and provide breathing air for life support systems.
The tool works by splitting up carbon dioxide molecules, including one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. It secretes the oxygen molecules and emits carbon monoxide as a waste product.
Heat-tolerant materials, such as a gold and airgel coating, were used to make the instrument as this conversion process requires temperatures reaching 1470 degrees Fahrenheit. These materials keep the heat from radiating out and damage every aspect of the rover.
“This is a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide into oxygen on Mars,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
MOXIE has more work to do, but the results of this technology demonstration are promising as we reach our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen is not just what we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on it. of propellant production on Mars to make the journey home. “
To launch four astronauts from the surface of Mars, about 15,000 pounds of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds of oxygen would be required. Living on the surface of Mars, the space explorers would consume much less.
“The astronauts who stay on the surface for a year may use a metric ton between them,” Michael Hecht, lead investigator for MOXIE at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory, said in a statement.
Transporting so much oxygen from Earth to Mars would be incredibly difficult and expensive, and would mean less space on the spacecraft for other supplies.
However, an oxygen converter weighing about 1 ton – a large, powerful future generation MOXIE – could produce the necessary oxygen.
For future tests, MOXIE will likely generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour. The instrument will test approximately nine more times over the next two years, and the research team will use data to design future generations of MOXIE.
Just like the goals for the Ingenuity helicopter, which is also a technology demonstration, the target is for MOXIE to push the boundaries of the instrument.
During the first phase, the team evaluates how the instrument works. A second phase tests MOXIE under different conditions, such as the time of day or changing seasons. And during the third and final phase, we “go to the extreme” – trying out new operating modes or “introducing new wrinkles, like a run where we compare operations at three or more different temperatures,” Hecht said.
Technology like MOXIE could help future astronauts essentially live off land and use the resources of their environment.
“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen in another world,” Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
“It takes regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and carries it through a processing plant, making it a big structure, or it takes carbon dioxide – most of the atmosphere – and converts it into oxygen. it allows us to convert these abundant materials into useful things: propellant, breathable air or, in combination with hydrogen, water. “
The positive results of this first test bring Mars missions one step closer to landing humans on the red planet.