An experiment conducted on Mars has successfully demonstrated the extraction of breathable oxygen from the planet’s thin atmosphere. The Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) was conducted on NASA’s Perseverance rover and continuously produced a small but constant supply of oxygen by breaking down molecules in Martian air.
MOXIE’s impressive performance has shown that it is possible to extract oxygen from the atmosphere of Mars, which could provide future astronauts with breathing air or rocket fuel. NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy emphasized the importance of developing these technologies for a long-term lunar presence, a robust lunar economy and a first human exploration campaign to Mars.
MOXIE was developed by MIT scientists and has been in operation since the Perseverance rover landed on Mars in February 2021. In 16 processes, the experiment produced a total of 122 grams of oxygen, the equivalent of sustaining a dog’s breath. small for 10 hours or a human for 4 hours.
MOXIE uses electrolysis, using electric current to break down carbon dioxide into its component atoms. The Martian air is filtered and purified before being compressed, heated and passed through the solid oxide electrolyzer (SOXE). SOXE splits carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen ions. When carbon monoxide is released, oxygen atoms recombine to form molecular oxygen (O2), the purity of which is measured and checked before release.
Each operation of MOXIE lasts a few hours, during which the device collects oxygen for an hour before shutting down. The target production is up to 10 grams, which is equivalent to about 20 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut. Although actual production varied, with the 16th operation producing about 9.8 grams, MOXIE showed that even the thin Martian atmosphere can provide oxygen.
By reducing the need to transport oxygen from Earth, a device like MOXIE could supplement other oxygen supplies in a worst-case scenario. The researchers, led by MIT physicist and MOXIE principal investigator Michael Hecht, aim to develop a full-fledged system with an improved version of the oxygen extraction device, methods for liquefying oxygen and techniques for storing it.
It’s critical that future Mars explorers become more self-sufficient, considering the oxygen needed to sustain a team of astronauts on Mars for a year and the liquid fuel needed for spacecraft. About 500 tons of oxygen are required. However, numerous challenges still need to be overcome before humans can undertake long-term missions to the Red Planet.
Hecht believes decisions need to be made regarding the validation of technologies on Mars, and MOXIE’s success represents a significant milestone. The results of the first seven MOXIE operations were published last year in Science Advances.