NASA’s first experiment to produce oxygen on another planet is a success! A microwave-size device called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) on the Perseverance rover has successfully created oxygen on the red planet.
This experiment started out a little over two years ago when the rover landed on Mars. Since then MOXIE has produced 122 grams of oxygen, equal to what a small dog breathes in 10 hours. At one point MOXIE even turned out 12 grams of oxygen at 98% purity, in an hour. This is twice as much as NASA originally expected from the device. August 7th, saw the machine’s 16th round of operation, after that, it shut down due to completing its goals.
“We’re proud to have supported a breakthrough technology like MOXIE that could turn local resources into useful products for future exploration missions,” Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations, Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters said. “By proving this technology in real-world conditions, we’ve come one step closer to a future in which astronauts ‘live off the land’ on the Red Planet.”
122 grams of Oxygen may not seem like a lot, but this is ground-breaking for our relationship with the red planet. Mar’s atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide which isn’t super helpful for species that breathe oxygen. MOXIE takes these carbon dioxide molecules that have one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms and separates them. It then disposes of the carbon monoxide as a waste product. While the system spits out the oxygen that it also analyzes for purity and quantity.
The other challenge on Mars is how hot it is. Not to mention the conversion process that MOXIE has temperatures reaching 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit. So the machine had to be built from heat-tolerant materials, which is why it is coated in gold and aerogel. This coating keeps the heat from radiating out and damaging other aspects of the rover.
“MOXIE’s impressive performance shows that it is feasible to extract oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere — oxygen that could help supply breathable air or rocket propellant to future astronauts,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in a statement. “Developing technologies that let us use resources on the Moon and Mars is critical to build a long-term lunar presence, create a robust lunar economy, and allow us to support an initial human exploration campaign to Mars.”
Devices like MOXIE scaled up could provide full-on life support systems. It could also help astronauts to live off the land and utilize the resources from their surroundings. Which would mean hauling less equipment into space with them. Since MOXIE is just the first in a long string of devices that NASA intends to test on Mars.
“We have to make decisions about which things need to be validated on Mars,” said Michael Hecht, MOXIE principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I think there are many technologies on that list; I’m very pleased MOXIE was first.”
We’ll keep you posted on news about MOXIE and the other devices NASA is testing as it becomes available.