A device developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that has been converting carbon dioxide into oxygen on the surface of Mars for the past 16 months could help fuel future human missions to the Red Planet, researchers said.
The Mars Site Oxygen Resource Experiment, or MOXIE, has succeeded in producing oxygen from carbon dioxide that makes up 95% of Mars’ atmosphere, according to a recent study published in Science Advances. It took off on a flight with NASA’s Perseverance rover in February 2021 and began producing oxygen about two months later.
The study shows that MOXIE was able to produce oxygen at a rate a tree modest on Earth – and did so in a wide variety of weather conditions. NASA and MIT researchers believe an expanded version of MOXIE could travel to Mars before a human mission and produce enough oxygen to sustain humans. This could also lead the rocket back to Earth, the MIT researchers said in a press release.
“We’ve learned a tremendous amount that will guide future systems at a larger scale,” said Michael Hecht, principal investigator for the MOXIE mission at MIT’s Haystack Observatory.
MOXIE is designed so small that it could fit into a Perseverance rover, but the researchers say a larger one could be a “large-scale oxygen plant.” Currently, MOXIE is designed to run only for short periods between exploration and rover missions. Bigger can work continuously.
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The performance of MOXIE on Mars is also the first case of “in situ resource utilization,” or the use of a planet’s materials to create resources that would otherwise have been sent from Earth.
“It’s historic in that sense,” said MOXIE Deputy Principal Investigator Jeffrey Hoffman, professor of practice in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
How does MOXIE make oxygen on Mars?
Image of the surface of Mars (NASA)
MOXIE does its job by drawing Martian air through a filter that gets rid of pollutants, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From there, the air is compressed and sent through a device that splits the carbon dioxide-filled air into oxygen and carbon monoxide ions.
These ions are then isolated and recombined to form breathable oxygen. O2 is measured for quantity and purity before being returned to the air.
Engineers have used MOXIE seven times since landing on Mars.
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“Mars’ atmosphere is much more diverse than Earth’s,” Hoffman said. “Air density can vary by two times during the year, and the temperature can vary by 100 degrees. One of the goals is to show that we can run in all seasons.”
So far, it has performed in every weather it has encountered, but engineers haven’t demonstrated that it can operate at dawn or dusk, “when the temperature changes dramatically.”
“We really have it up our sleeve that allows us to do that, and once we test that in the lab, we can get to this latest feat to show that we can really run at any time,” Hecht said.
What’s next for MOXIE?
Engineers will continue to test MOXIE’s capability on Mars and ramp up production in the Martian Spring, when atmospheric density and carbon dioxide levels are high.
They will also monitor for signs of “wear and tear” that may be caused by MOXIE having to start and shutdown every time it is turned on. If MOXIE can continue to operate, “this indicates that a large-scale system, designed for continuous operation, can do so for thousands of hours.”
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“To support a human mission to Mars, we have to bring in a lot of things from Earth, like computers, spacesuits, and habitats,” Hoffman said. “But stupid old oxygen? If you can get there, go find it – you’re way ahead of the game.”
NASA’s Perseverance rover searches for ancient life
Perseverance landed on Mars in February 2021 in the hope of finding signs of ancient life. Scientists believe that if life flourished on Mars, it would have occurred 3 billion to 4 billion years ago, when water was still flowing on the planet.
It drills into the rover’s arm and collects rock samples that contain possible signs of past microscopic life. Three to fourteen chalk-sized samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside to be eventually retrieved by another rover and brought home on another missile ship.
The goal is to bring them back to Earth as early as 2031.
The rover has also captured hundreds of thousands of stunning photos and videos.
Perseverance is the ninth US spacecraft since the 1970s to successfully land on Mars.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.