WASHINGTON, April 21, 2021 / PRNewswire / – The growing “first” list for Perseverance, NASA’s newest six-wheel robot on the Martian surface, includes converting some of the thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere of the Red Planet into oxygen. An experimental toaster-size instrument aboard a Perseverance called Mars In-Situ Oxygen Resource Use Experiment (MOXIE) accomplished the task. The test was conducted April 20, the 60th Martian day, or sol, since the mission landed February 18.
While the technology demonstration is just beginning, it could pave the way for science fiction to become a scientific fact – isolating and storing oxygen on Mars to help power rockets that could lift astronauts off the planet’s surface. Such devices could also provide breathing space to astronauts themselves one day. MOXIE is an exploration technology investigation – as is Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) weather station – and is sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission (STMD) Directorate and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
“This is a vital first step in converting carbon dioxide into oxygen on Mars,” he said Jim Reuter, link administrator for STMD. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results of this technology demonstration are very promising as we move towards our goal of seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen is not just what we do breathe them out. A rocket driver depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing a driver on Mars to make the journey home. “
For rockets or spacers, oxygen is key, says MOXIE’s chief researcher, Michael Hecht from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Haystack Observatory.
In order to burn its fuel, a rocket must have more oxygen by weight. Getting four astronauts off the Martian surface on a future mission would require approximately 15,000 pounds (7 tonnes) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 tonnes) of oxygen. Astronauts living and working on Mars, by contrast, would require far less oxygen to breathe. “The astronauts who spend a year on the surface might use one metric ton between them,” Hecht said.
Transporting 25 tonnes of oxygen from Earth to Mars is a daunting task. Carrying a one-ton oxygen converter – one of MOXIE’s larger, more powerful descendants that could produce those 25 tonnes – would be far more economical and practical.
The atmosphere of Mars is 96% carbon dioxide. MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which consist of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. Waste product, carbon monoxide, is emitted into the Martian atmosphere.
The conversion process requires high levels of heat to reach temperatures of about 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius). To accommodate this, the MOXIE unit is made of heat-resistant materials. These include 3D printed nickel alloy parts, which heat and cool the gases flowing through it, and a light airgel that helps hold the heat in. A thin gold coating outside MOXIE reflects infrared heat, keeping it from radiating outwards and potentially damaging other parts of Persistence.
In this first operation, MOXIE’s oxygen production was quite modest – about 5 grams, which equates to about 10 minutes worth of inhaled oxygen for an astronaut. MOXIE is designed to produce up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.
This technology demonstration was designed to ensure the instrument survived the launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month journey through deep space, and touched on Persistence on February 18. MOXIE is expected to extract oxygen at least nine more times during a Martian year (nearly two years on Earth).
These oxygen production runs will come in three stages. The first step will verify and characterize the function of the instrument, while the second stage will run the instrument in various atmospheric conditions, such as different times of the day and seasons. In the third step, Hecht said, “we’ll push the envelope” – try new approaches, or introduce “new wrinkles, as a run where we compare operations at three or more different temperatures.”
“MOXIE is not just the first tool to produce oxygen in another world,” he said Kortes Trudy, director of technology demonstrations within STMD. This is the first technology of its kind that will help future missions “live off the land,” using elements of another world environment, also known as on-the-spot resource use.
“It takes regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and puts it through a processing plant, makes it into a large structure, or takes carbon dioxide – most of the atmosphere – and converts it into oxygen , “he said. “This process allows us to convert these abundant materials into usable materials: propulsion, breathable air, or, together with hydrogen, water.”
More About Persistence
A key objective of the mission of Persistence on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will feature the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and will be the first mission to collect and store the Martian rock and regolith (rock and dust) broken).
Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for analysis in detail.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration method, which includes Artemis’s lunar missions that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Southern California, which is managed for NASA by Caltech at Pasadena, California, built and managed the operations of the Perseverance rover.
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