NASA designed the Perseverance rover to make history, and it’s done plenty of that since arriving on Mars several months ago. The most recent breakthrough comes thanks to the rover’s Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). NASA reports MOXIE has successfully started up and produced breathable (or burnable) oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. This has the potential to change how we explore Mars and the rest of the solar system.
MOXIE is just one of several technology demonstrations that rode to Mars with Perseverance. The most notable of these demos is Ingenuity, which recently made history as the first flying machine on another planet. MOXIE isn’t as dramatic as Ingenuity, but it could have just as much impact on the future of planetary exploration.
Mars’ atmosphere is thin and dominated by carbon dioxide, and MOXIE was designed to convert that gas into breathable oxygen. NASA fired up the device recently, and after two hours of warm-up, MOXIE began producing oxygen at a rate of six grams per hour. That’s enough to keep an astronaut alive for about 10 minutes.
To strip the oxygen atoms out of carbon dioxide, MOXIE needs to ramp its internal temperature to approximately 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius). To make sure the system remained intact, NASA designed it with heat-tolerant materials, including a case made of a 3D printed nickel alloy. The superheated gasses flow through a lightweight aerogel that helps contain the heat inside MOXIE. Similarly, the outer case has a thin layer of gold that reflects infrared heat inward to protect Perseverance’s components.
Moxie is designed to generate as much as 10 grams of oxygen per hour. That’s not enough to keep an astronaut alive indefinitely, but it’s a major step toward effective in-situ resource utilization. In addition to breathable air, oxygen is important as an oxidizer in rocket engines. NASA estimates you would need about 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen to lift a human lander off the surface and return it to orbit. Sending that much fuel to Mars would be extremely costly, but making it there might be feasible in the future.
NASA plans to run MOXIE at least nine more times over the next Martian year (about two years on Earth). The data gathered from this demo should help NASA devise systems that can produce more oxygen — maybe enough to keep a few brave humans breathing and help them get off the planet when it’s time to come home.