Nasa removes inhaled oxygen from thin Martian air

LOS ANGELES: Nasa has first logged another extraterrestrial on its latest mission to Mars: converting carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into pure, breathable oxygen, the U.S. space agency said Wednesday.
The unprecedented extraction of oxygen, literally out of thin air on Mars, was achieved Tuesday by an experimental device aboard Perseverance, a six-wheel science rover that landed on the Red Planet on Feb. 18 after a seven-month voyage from Earth.
In its first activation, the toaster-size instrument called MOXIE, short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Use Experiment, produced about 5 grams of oxygen, equivalent to an astronaut’s roughly 10 minutes’ worth of breathing , says Nasa. Although the initial output was modest, the feat marked the first experimental extraction of natural resources from another planet’s environment for direct human use.
“MOXIE is not just the first tool to produce oxygen in another world,” Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within the Nasa Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement. He called it the first technology of its kind to help future missions “live off the land” of another planet.
The instrument works by electrolysis, which uses extreme heat to separate oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which accounts for about 95% of the atmosphere on Mars.
The remaining 5% of the atmosphere of Mars, which is only about 1% as dense Earth, is mostly composed of molecular nitrogen and argon. Oxygen exists on planet Mars in trivial trace amounts.
But an abundant supply is ultimately considered essential to human exploration of the Red Planet, both as a sustainable source of space-breathing space for astronauts and as a necessary ingredient for rocket fuel to fly home.
The volumes required to launch rockets into space from Mars are particularly alarming.
According to Nasa, getting four astronauts off the Martian surface would take about 15,000 pounds (7 tonnes) of rocket fuel, plus 55,000 pounds (25 tonnes) of oxygen.
Transporting a one-ton oxygen converter to Mars is more practical than trying to extract 25 tonnes of oxygen in tanks from Earth, MOXIE chief investigator Michael Hecht, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a Nasa news release.
Astronauts living and working on Mars will require perhaps one tonne of oxygen between them to last a whole year, Hecht said.
MOXIE is designed to produce up to 10 grams per hour as a proof of concept, and scientists plan to run the machine at least nine more times over the next two years under different conditions and speeds, Nasa said.
The first oxygen conversion run came a day after Nasa achieved a historic flight-controlled flight on another planet with the successful take-over and landing of a small robot helicopter on Mars.
Like MOXIE, the two-rotor chopper dubbed Ingenuity made a trip to Mars with Perseverance, whose main mission is to search for fossilized remains of ancient microbes that may have thrived on Mars on billions of years ago back.

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