(CN) — A lunchbox-sized instrument can create a small tree’s worth of oxygen on Mars.
Researchers from multiple institutions, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, collaborated the study published Wednesday in Science Advances focused on the MIT-led Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE.
MOXIE’s small size allowed it to fit on NASA’s Perseverance rover and to run for short periods of time. To reduce thermal stress, MOXIE's startup and shutdown times depend on the rover’s exploration schedule and mission responsibilities.
Touching down with the rover on the red planet in February 2021, researchers report that by the end of that same year MOXIE had produced oxygen on seven experimental runs. According to the study, each run tested a variety of atmospheric conditions such as day and night through Mars’ different seasons.
“The atmosphere of Mars is far more variable than Earth,” MOXIE deputy principal investigator Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said in a statement accompanying the study. “The density of the air can vary by a factor of two through the year, and the temperature can vary by 100 degrees. One objective is to show we can run in all seasons.”
The instrument reached its targeted six grams of oxygen production per hour, the rate of a small Earth tree, at almost any time of the Martian day and year.
MOXIE’s methods are efficient and reliable in converting Mars’ atmosphere into pure oxygen. With In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), like another experiment that used a plasma-based method to create oxygen on Mars, the study authors said MOXIE draws the Martian air in through a filter that removes contaminants. Next, it pressurizes the air before sending it through the Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE), OxEon’s instrument built to electrochemically split the carbon dioxide-rich air into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide.
MOXIE’s size, while great for joining the Perseverance in its mission, does not allow for larger oxygen production. A scaled-up version could be sent to Mars ahead of a human mission to continuously produce oxygen to the equivalent of several hundred trees. In that scenario, humans will land on a planet with enough oxygen to sustain them and fuel a rocket to return astronauts to Earth.
Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE mission at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, hopes to push MOXIE in preparation for the Martian spring, when the planet’s atmospheric density and carbon dioxide levels are high.
“The next run coming up will be during the highest density of the year, and we just want to make as much oxygen as we can,” Hecht said in the statement. “So, we’ll set everything as high as we dare, and let it run as long as we can.”
Furthermore, Hecht said the researchers will also monitor the systems for signs of wear and tear. According to the study, MOXIE currently cannot run without breaks like a full-scale system. If the instrument does not start up and shut down with each run, the thermal stress will degrade the system over time.
The researchers aim to overcome that challenge.
“To support a human mission to Mars, we have to bring a lot of stuff from Earth, like computers, spacesuits, and habitats,” said Hoffman, “But dumb old oxygen? If you can make it there, go for it — you’re way ahead of the game.”
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