Device on Mars Rover Creates Oxygen, Key Source of Fuel and Air for Future Missions

The oxygen-creating device hitched a ride to the desert world on NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California lower the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, into the Perseverance rover. (Credit: NASA / JPL-CalTech)

(CN) — On Mars this week, a toaster-size instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully converted carbon dioxide into oxygen. It’s a significant step for the U.S. space agency as it seeks sustainable air and fuel sources for future human exploration of the red planet and beyond.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment — called “MOXIE” by NASA — produced about 10 minutes worth of breathable oxygen and is designed to produce twice as much per hour.

MOXIE produces oxygen by heating up to about 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit and separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules in Mars’ thin atmosphere. Carbon monoxide is emitted as a byproduct.

The device’s successful experiment will help the space agency develop methods for storing oxygen for future space explorers and for powering rocket-propelled crafts, according to NASA’s Jim Reuter.

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” Reuter said in a statement Wednesday. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.”

Future missions on the red planet or elsewhere would require massive amounts of oxygen to power rockets — and shipping it from Earth isn’t the best choice. NASA engineers estimate it would take approximately 15,000 pounds of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds of oxygen to get four astronauts off the Martian surface.

Astronauts living and working on the desert world would require far less oxygen to breathe, according to MOXIE’s principal investigator, Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory

“The astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use one metric ton between them,” Hecht said.

The experiment took place April 20, Perseverance’s 60th Martian day since its Feb. 18 landing.

Mars’ gravity is approximately one-third that of Earth’s and its atmosphere is 1% as dense as what humans experience on our planet’s surface. 

The U.S. space agency marked another “first” this week after successfully launching humanity’s first-ever powered, controlled flight on an alien world.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter had its “Wright brothers moment” on Mars on Monday, hovering 10 feet over the surface of the red planet for nearly 40 seconds before touching down on the sand.

To both honor the Wright brothers’ contribution to aviation and mark Ingenuity’s leap into planetary exploration, the rotorcraft carried a postage stamp-sized fabric from the Wright brothers’ first successful aircraft, the Flyer.

The four-pound drone helicopter made the nearly 300-million-mile journey from Earth while attached to the underbelly of the Perseverance rover.

Ingenuity will scout small sections of Mars’ rocky terrain once it successfully orients itself in the planet’s thin atmosphere.

Perseverance — the six-wheeled, SUV-sized rover — has an entirely different mission: It will deploy its high-tech robotic arm and drill to collect soil and rock samples from what scientists believe was once a flourishing river delta and lake. 

NASA scientists have said the 28-mile-wide crater once hosted a Lake Tahoe-sized body of water that may have left behind clues of single-celled organisms and microbial life that could’ve populated the planet. 

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