Perseverance’s Selfie with Ingenuity | Photo courtesy NASA/JPL
Most everyone remembers when Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) activated the alien reactor and the skies of Mars filled with breathable air.
Admittedly, when I first watched Total Recall, I didn’t find this plot idea to be too feasible. I mean let’s be real here, Mars is a cold, desert planet with an atmosphere largely made up of carbon dioxide. Not a very hospitable place for human life. Still, the idea of actual human exploration and possible long term habitation has always captivated the imagination.
Now, it seems, creating air we can breath on the Red Planet may just be possible, after all.
The growing list of “firsts” for Perseverance, NASA’s newest six-wheeled robot on the Martian surface, most recently includes converting some of the Red Planet’s thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen. Oh yes, you read that right! A toaster-sized, experimental instrument aboard the rover called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) accomplished the seemingly daunting task. The test took place April 20th, the 60th Martian day, or sol, since the mission landed February 18th.
“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator STMD. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.”
For rockets or astronauts, oxygen is key, said MOXIE’s principal investigator, Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory.
To burn its fuel, a rocket must have more oxygen by weight. Let’s say you wanted to get four astronauts off the Martian surface on a future mission. This 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 require far less oxygen to breathe. “The astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use one metric ton between them,” Hecht said.
Hauling 25 metric tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars would be an arduous task. Transporting a one-ton oxygen converter – a larger, more powerful descendant of MOXIE that could produce those 25 tons – would be far more economical and practical.
Mars’ atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide, so MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. A waste product, carbon monoxide, is emitted into the Martian atmosphere.
In this first operation, MOXIE’s oxygen production was quite modest – about 5 grams, equivalent to about 10 minutes’ worth 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 the instrument survived the launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month journey through deep space, and touchdown with Perseverance on Feb. 18th. MOXIE is expected to extract oxygen at least nine more times over the course of a Martian year (nearly two years on Earth).
These oxygen-production runs will come in three phases. The first phase will check out and characterize the instrument’s function, while the second phase will run the instrument in varying atmospheric conditions, such as different times of day and seasons.
In the third phase, Hecht said, “we’ll push the envelope” – trying new operating modes, or introducing “new wrinkles, such as a run where we compare operations at three or more different temperatures.”
“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within STMD. It’s the first technology of its kind that will help future missions “live off the land,” using elements of another world’s environment, also known as in-situ resource utilization.
“It’s taking regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and putting it through a processing plant, making it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide – the bulk of the atmosphere – and converting it into oxygen,” she said. “This process allows us to convert these abundant materials into useable things: propellant, breathable air, or, combined with hydrogen, water.”
While the technology demonstration is just getting started, it could pave the way for science fiction to become science fact – isolating and storing oxygen on Mars to help power rockets that could lift astronauts off the planet’s surface. Such devices also might one day provide breathable air for astronauts themselves.
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