Perseverance rover‘s ultimate aim is to search for evidence of ancient life on Mars, but it has been doing other science work as well.
NASA announced on Wednesday that Perseverance had successfully extracted carbon dioxide from the planet’s atmosphere and converted it to oxygen on April 20th. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab equipped the rover with an instrument named the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE for short, as well as a family portrait of its robotic siblings.
While the technology demonstration is still in its early stages, it has the potential to transform science fiction into reality by isolating and storing oxygen on Mars to power rockets that could carry astronauts off the planet’s surface.
The success of the experiment, according to NASA, paves the way for future missions, especially those involving human astronauts, since both people and the rockets that will transport them to and from Mars need oxygen to function.
A rocket requires more oxygen by weight to burn its fuel. A potential mission to Mars will require approximately 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen to get four astronauts off the Martian surface. Astronauts living and working on Mars, on the other hand, will take much less oxygen to breathe.
“The astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use one metric ton between them,” said MOXIE’s principal investigator, Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory.
It will be difficult to transport 25 metric tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars. It would be much more cost-effective and realistic to transport a one-ton oxygen converter – a bigger, more efficient descendant of MOXIE capable of producing those 25 tons.
How does MOXIE work?
96% of Mars’ atmosphere is carbon dioxide. MOXIE operates by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules (one carbon atom plus two oxygen atoms). Carbon monoxide, a waste product, is released into the Martian atmosphere.
To reach a temperature of around 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit, the conversion process requires a lot of heat (800 Celsius). The MOXIE device is made of heat-resistant materials to accommodate this. These include 3D-printed nickel alloy parts that heat and cool the gases passing through it, as well as a lightweight aerogel that keeps the heat in.
Infrared heat is reflected by a thin gold layer on the exterior of MOXIE, preventing it from radiating outward and eventually destroying other sections of Perseverance.
MOXIE’s oxygen output in this first procedure was quite low – about 5 grams, or about 10 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut. MOXIE is capable of producing up to ten grams of oxygen per hour.
This technology demonstration was created to ensure that the instrument endured the launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month journey into deep space, and the touchdown with Perseverance on February 18. Over the course of a Martian year, MOXIE is expected to extract oxygen at least nine more times (nearly two years on Earth).
There will be three phases to these oxygen-production runs. The first step will test and describe the instrument’s functionality, while the second will put it through its paces in various atmospheric conditions, such as different times of day and seasons.
Perseverance and NASA have achieved yet another historic first with this fruitful experiment.