NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover extracts the first oxygen from the Red Planet

The growing list of “firsts” for Perseverance, NASA’s newest six-wheeled robot to hit the Martian surface, includes converting some of the Red Planet’s thin, carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen. An experimental toaster-sized instrument onboard Perseverance, dubbed the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), accomplished the task. The test took place on April 20, the 60th Martian, or sol, day since the mission landed on February 18.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover extracts the first oxygen from the Red Planet

While the technology demonstration is only just beginning, it could pave the way for science fiction to become scientific fact – isolating and storing oxygen on Mars to help propel rockets that could lift astronauts off the surface of the Earth. planet. Such devices could one day also provide breathable air to the astronauts themselves. MOXIE is a survey of exploration technologies – much like the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) weather station – and is sponsored by NASA’s Directorate of Space Technology Missions (STMD) and the Directorate of Exploration Missions and human operations.

“This is a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of STMD. “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. ” NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter makes history with its first flight on the surface of Mars.

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For rockets or astronauts, oxygen is essential, said MOXIE principal investigator Michael Hecht of the Haystack Observatory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To burn its fuel, a rocket must have more oxygen by weight. Bringing four astronauts out of the Martian surface for a future mission would require approximately 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen. In contrast, astronauts living and working on Mars would need much less oxygen to breathe. “Astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use a metric ton between them,” Hecht said.

Transporting 25 tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars would be a daunting task. Carrying a one-ton oxygen converter – a bigger, more powerful descendant of MOXIE that could produce those 25 tons – would be much more economical and convenient.

The atmosphere of Mars is 96% carbon dioxide. MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. A waste, carbon monoxide, is emitted into the Martian atmosphere. NASA’s “Ingenuity” Mars helicopter takes off and makes its first flight to another planet.

The conversion process requires high levels of heat to reach a temperature of approximately 1470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius). To take this into account, the MOXIE unit is made with heat tolerant materials. These include 3D printed nickel alloy parts, which heat and cool the gases that pass through them, and a lightweight airgel that helps retain heat. A thin layer of gold on the outside of the MOXIE reflects infrared heat, preventing it from radiating outward and potentially damaging other parts of the Perseverance.

In this first operation, MOXIE’s oxygen production was quite modest – about 5 grams, or the equivalent of about 10 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut. MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.

This technology demonstration was designed to ensure that the instrument survived launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month trip to deep space, and a landing with Perseverance on February 18. MOXIE is expected to extract oxygen at least nine more times in a Martian Year (nearly two years on Earth).

These oxygen production cycles will take place in three phases. The first phase will verify and characterize the function of the instrument, while the second phase will operate the instrument in varying atmospheric conditions, such as different times of the day and different seasons. In the third phase, Hecht said, “we will push the boundaries” – trying new ways of operating or introducing “new rides, like a race where we compare operations at three or more different temperatures”.

“MOXIE is not just the first instrument to produce oxygen in another world,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at STMD. It is the first technology of its kind that will help future missions “make a living from the land”, using elements from another global environment, also known as in situ resource use.

“It takes regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and passes it through a processing plant, turning it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide – most of the atmosphere – and by converting it into oxygen, ”she said. “This process allows us to convert these abundant materials into usable things: propellant, breathable air, or, combined with hydrogen, water.”

Learn more about perseverance:

A key focus of Perseverance’s mission to Mars is astrobiology, including looking for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and hide Martian rock and regolith (shattered rocks and dust).

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples on the surface and return them to Earth for further analysis. SpaceX wins $ 2.9 billion contract with NASA to build Moon Lander.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon-to-Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages the operations of the Perseverance rover.