A new article published in the journal Science Advances reveals a small device called MOXIE, which is currently on Mars and is generating as much oxygen as a small tree.
If you thought packing your car for a cross-country move was difficult, imagine how difficult it would be to pack a space shuttle for a journey to Mars. Spacecraft travelling to the red planet will also need to transport living habitats, scientific experiments, and emergency supplies in addition to supplies like food and water.
Fortunately for these pioneering astronauts, it appears that one of the most significant—and heavy—resources will be made available locally: oxygen. In fact, scientists discovered on Wednesday that a lunchbox-sized gadget existing on the surface of Mars is already dependably producing as much oxygen as a tree.
Oxygen will be crucial for both giving astronauts breathable air while they are beyond the planet and for fueling rockets that will eventually return them to Earth. Researchers from MIT describe how a modest experiment conducted on the Perseverance rover, which is now exploring Mars, is evidence that oxygen may be produced from the Martian atmosphere in a new report that was published on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
This experiment marks the first time resources have been effectively harvested and used on a planet, a development that is crucial for future lunar colonies as well as Martian exploration.
Michael Hecht is a co-author on the new paper and principal investigator of the project, called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment). He explained to Motherboard via email that scientists concentrated on oxygen collection because it would be one of the hardest commodities to transport from Earth and would serve a number of important roles in developing a viable habitat on Mars.
“I like to say rockets breathe a lot more than we do,” Hecht said. “Just for the lift-off to orbit, the rocket will use more that 10 times the amount of fuel than the crew of 4-6 will use in their year-and-a-half stay on the surface, and hence it will need 10 times as much oxygen.”
Since its first Mars landing in February 2021, MOXIE has been powered on seven times during various seasons and weather patterns to produce oxygen utilising elements in the Martian atmosphere, such as CO2. This air is heated to 800 degrees Celsius, compressed to separate into only oxygen ions and carbon monoxide (CO), and then passed through a HEPA filter to eliminate any dust. After being separated, the oxygen ions are united once more to form breathable and combustible O2.
In each of its seven runs thus far, MOXIE has been able to produce six grammes of oxygen each hour, which scientists believe is comparable to a small tree. Hercht claims that while a little amount of CO2 and CO exhaust is produced by this process by MOXIE, it is not enough to endanger the Martian environment.
“There is already trace oxygen and CO on Mars from natural causes such as radiation breaking up CO2 molecules,” Hercht said. “In many ways it’s the ultimate clean fuel system, similar to hydrogen fuel on Earth.”
Although MOXIE provides unequivocal evidence that oxygen can be produced on another planet, the system is not yet reliable enough to support a habitat on Mars. Researchers will need to scale MOXIE up to the size of a “small chest freezer,” according to Hecht, in order to do that. At this magnitude, MOXIE 2.0 might produce enough oxygen to either launch a four-person crew off the planet in a rocket or sustain 100 crew members on Mars.
Hercht added that scaling up the technology itself shouldn’t be too difficult, but operating the system independently on Mars for thousands of hours would be more difficult, especially given that the original MOXIE has only operated for fewer than 100 hours since it landed last year.
Hecht and colleagues are keen to continue testing MOXIE in the interim, both on Mars and in a facility that simulates Mars here on Earth, in order to push the limits of the technology. They particularly anticipate boosting production during the Martian spring, when atmospheric density and carbon dioxide levels are at their highest. On Mars, it is now the beginning of winter.
The future of Martian homes is looking brighter and better with a little moxie and MOXIE-generated oxygen.