NASA’s Perseverance rover reliably produces oxygen. A scalable version could help astronauts breathe on Mars one day.

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Technicians at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lower the Mars Oxygen Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover.NASA/JPL-Caltech

  • A toaster-sized device called MOXIE is on board NASA’s Perseverance rover, which will land on Mars in 2021.

  • MOXIE reliably produces 6 grams of oxygen per hour under various conditions on Mars.

  • A scaled-up version of the experiment could one day support human missions to Mars.

Inside NASA’s Perseverance rover is a boxy, toaster-sized instrument.

The machine, called MOXIE, successfully produces oxygen on Mars – a necessary condition for sustainable work and departure from the red planet.

Researchers tested the Mars In situ Oxygenation Experiment (MOXIE) seven times in 2021, during nighttime, daytime and different seasons on Mars, according to a study published Wednesday in Science Advances.

On each run, it produced about 6 grams of oxygen per hour—about the oxygen production rate of a small tree on Earth.

The researchers’ primary goal was to demonstrate that the device would perform reliably, predictably and robustly over and over again, Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE mission at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, told Insider.

“The answer, to all of these things, is yes,” Hecht said, adding, “This is a big deal.”

This technology could allow Mars explorers to breathe in the red plant one day. If a next-generation device is able to produce oxygen on a larger scale, that oxygen could be used as an ingredient in the rocket fuel needed to bring a crew back to Earth.

“This is the first demonstration of actually taking resources on the surface of another planetary body and converting them chemically into something that would be useful for a human mission,” said Jeffrey Hoffman, MOXIE’s deputy principal investigator, in a press release. “It’s historic in that sense.”

The Mars 2020 descent stage lowers NASA's Perseverance rover to the Red Planet on February 18, 2021.

NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars on February 18, 2021.NASA/JPL-Caltech

Carbon dioxide makes up 96% of the Martian atmosphere. MOXIE works by taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, running it through a fuel cell and heating it to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Hecht. MOXIE then ferments the molecules with electricity to strip them of their oxygen atoms. The oxygen atoms then join together to produce oxygen gas.

“I like to say we’re making oxygen out of thin air because the air is very, very, very thin,” Hecht said, adding, “It’s like being 100,000 feet above the surface of the Earth.”

According to Hecht, the MOXIE team faced challenges when designing a device capable of producing oxygen in the Martian environment.

“Mars is tough,” Hecht said, adding, “First of all, you have to make something that will go through all kinds of abuse before it even gets to Mars.”

In addition to having to withstand the harsh vacuum and radiation of space, MOXIE had to be small—about the size of a toaster—to fit aboard the Perseverance rover.

Illustration of the Perseverance rover on Mars with its science instruments.

Illustration of the Perseverance rover on Mars with its science instruments.NASA

Still, Hecht said the MOXIE proved its mettle. “We set our own record by making 10.4 grams of oxygen in a short excursion,” Hecht said, adding that the device was designed to produce 6 grams of oxygen per hour.

“We’ve pushed the instrument as hard as we’re ever likely to push it, and that’s been a real achievement,” he said.

MOXIE breaks down carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen atoms, before the individual oxygen atoms combine to create breathable oxygen.

Since January, the team has been running the experiment every month or so. The oxygen generator has now been used a total of 11 times. This allows them to troubleshoot, including operating the device more safely by keeping it at a constant voltage.

“When the voltage gets too high for the given conditions, that gets us into trouble,” Hecht said, adding, “Instead of producing carbon monoxide, we start producing carbon, and that just jams the job and poisons the instrument—it’s over.” game. .”

Image shows astronauts using equipment on Mars

In this illustration, NASA astronauts drill into the ground on Mars.NASA

Since the Perseverance rover landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, it has captured snapshots of the rusty red surface, sampled rocks and taken selfies.

MOXIE first demonstrated that it could produce oxygen from the Martian air in April 2021. The new research was intended to test whether the device could consistently produce oxygen on the red planet. The researchers also wanted to learn how to make MOXIE’s offspring durable enough to support future human exploration of Mars.

“We’re doing this to inform future MOXIE, which is what really counts,” Hecht said.

The researchers imagine that a jumbo version of MOXIE, about 100 times larger, could produce oxygen at the same rate as several hundred trees.

Hecht said scaling the technology shouldn’t be too difficult. Now that MOXIE has proven that we can reliably produce oxygen on another planet, Hecht and his team hope that future missions to Mars will include a larger-scale version of his technology.

“This is very good news for the prospect of sending people to Mars and being self-sufficient,” he said.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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