Explained: NASA’s Perseverance mission extracted oxygen from Mars. Why this is a big deal

Since reaching the Martian surface in February, NASA’s Perseverance mission has gained admiration for achieving feats that were only possible in science fiction, like flying a helicopter there, which ‘she did this week. The pioneering Mars rover has now added another feather to its cap.

The U.S. space agency announced that on Tuesday, a device aboard the rover was able to produce oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere for the first time – a development that has thrilled the scientific community, as it promises to l hope for future crewed missions. can rely on this technology for astronauts to breathe and return to Earth.

How Did Perseverance Produce Oxygen on Mars?

In its first operation since arriving on the Red Planet, the Mars In Situ Oxygen Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) produced 5 grams of oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, enough for an astronaut to breathe for 10 minutes.

On Mars, carbon dioxide makes up ~ 96% of the gas in the planet’s atmosphere. Oxygen is only 0.13%, compared to 21% in the Earth’s atmosphere. Like a tree on Earth, MOXIE inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen.

To produce oxygen, MOXIE separates oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules. To do this, it uses heat at a temperature of around 800 degrees Celsius and also produces carbon monoxide as waste, which it releases into the Martian atmosphere.

A technological demonstrator, MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour and is placed inside the Perseverance rover. It’s the size of a car battery, weighing 17.1 kg on Earth, but only 14.14 lbs (6.41 kg) on ​​Mars.

Thanks to its first successful run, MOXIE was able to demonstrate that it survived its launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month trip to deep space, and landing on the Martian surface with Perseverance. Over the next two years, MOXIE is expected to extract oxygen nine more times.

MOXIE is only a test model. Future oxygen generators from its technology must be around 100 times the size to support human missions to Mars.

But why is the production of oxygen on the red planet so important?

A substantial amount of oxygen to Mars is essential for the crewed missions planning to go there – not only for astronauts to breathe, but for rockets to be used as fuel on the way back to Earth.

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According to the NASA press release, for four astronauts to take off from Mars, a future mission would require about 7 metric tons of rocket fuel and 25 metric tons of oxygen, or about the weight of an entire space shuttle. In contrast, astronauts living and working on Mars would need much less oxygen to breathe, perhaps around a metric ton.

Scientists believe it will be a huge challenge to transport the 25 metric tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars for the return trip, and that their job would become much easier if liquefied oxygen could be produced on the Red Planet. This is where the role of MOXIE comes in.

“When we send humans to Mars, we’ll want them to come back safely, and to do that, they need a rocket to take off from the planet. The liquid oxygen booster is something we could make out there and not have to bring with us. One idea would be to bring an empty oxygen tank and fill it up on Mars, ”said Michael Hecht, MOXIE principal investigator.

NASA hopes to build a larger technological descendant of the experimental MOXIE that can do this job. Such a one-ton oxygen converter would be much more economical and convenient to transport to Mars, instead of 25 metric tons of oxygen, the agency argues.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Missions Directorate (STMD), called MOXIE’s feat “the critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars.”

“MOXIE still has work to do, but the results of this technology demonstration hold great promise as we move towards our goal of someday seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen is not just what we breathe. The rocket thruster depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on the production of the rocket thruster on Mars to get home. “