NASA’s Perseverance rover has just scored another first on Mars that could pave the way for astronauts to one day explore the Red Planet.
The rover successfully used its MOXIE instrument for the first time to generate oxygen from the thin, carbon dioxide-dominated Martian atmosphere. This demonstrated a technology that could help astronauts both breathe and propel the rockets that will bring them back to Earth.
The MOXIE milestone came on Tuesday, April 20, just a day after Perseverance first watched over another epic Martian – NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter’s first flight to Mars, which went to the belly of the rover for the Red Planeton.
“This is a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, assistant administrator for NASA’s Directorate of Space Technology Mission, in a statement today (April 21). “MOXIE still has a lot to do, but the results of this technology demonstration look promising as we get closer to our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars.”
Mars make oxygen
The toaster-sized MOXIE (short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) generates oxygen from carbon dioxide and emits carbon monoxide as a waste product. The conversion process takes place at temperatures around 800 degrees Celsius. Therefore, MOXIE is made of heat-resistant materials and has a thin gold coating to prevent potentially harmful heat from radiating outward into Perseverance’s body.
The MOXIE team warmed up the instrument for two hours yesterday and then let it crank out oxygen for an hour. MOXIE produced 5.4 grams of oxygen during that time, roughly enough to allow an astronaut to breathe easily for 10 minutes, NASA officials said.
MOXIE has not exhausted this initial effort; it can produce about 10 grams of oxygen per hour. The instrument could eventually achieve such values as the team plans to do about nine more runs over the course of a Mars year (about 687 Earth days).
These trials will be broken down into three phases, NASA officials said. In the first phase the instrument is checked and characterized, in the second phase the performance of MOXIE under different atmospheric conditions is assessed. During the third and final phase, “we will push the envelope,” said MOXIE chief investigator Michael Hecht in the same statement.
Moving the envelope will likely need to test new modes of operation or “add new folds, e.g. For example, a run comparing things at three or more different temperatures, ”added Hecht, who works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory.
MOXIE and the future of humanity on Mars
MOXIE itself cannot produce enough oxygen to make any difference for future exploration efforts. For example, launching four astronauts from the Martian surface would likely require about 15,000 pounds. (7,000 kilograms) rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds. (25,000 kg) oxygen, NASA officials said. (Rocket propellant is made up of fuel and an oxidizer that helps burn it.)
But much larger MOXIE successors could potentially offer great exploration opportunities that enable Mars astronauts to “live on land” instead of depending on costly and infrequent supplies from Earth, officials said.
Perseverance landed in the 45-kilometer-wide Jezero crater on February 18. Her job was to look for signs of ancient Martian life and to collect samples for future return to Earth. The rover can concentrate fully on these core tasks in about two weeks when Ingenuity’s one-month flight window comes to an end.
And MOXIE will continue to work in the background, pumping small bursts of carbon monoxide into the dusty Martian air every now and then to animate the considerable work of the six-wheeled robot.
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