An instrument the size of a lunchbox has been successfully generating breathable oxygen on Mars, doing the work of a small tree.
Since February of last year, the Mars In Situ Oxygen Resource Utilization Experiment, or Moxie, has been successfully manufacturing oxygen from the red planet’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.
The researchers suggest that a scaled-up version of Moxie could be sent to Mars, to continuously produce oxygen at the rate of several hundred trees, before humans went to the planet.
Moxie landed on the Martian surface as part of NASA’s Perseverance rover mission.
In a study, the researchers report that by the end of 2021 Moxie was able to produce oxygen in seven experimental runs, in a variety of atmospheric conditions, including during the day and night, and across different Martian stations.
In each run he achieved his goal of producing 6g of oxygen per hour, similar to the rate of a modest tree on Earth.
At full capacity, the system is expected to be able to generate enough oxygen to sustain humans once they reach Mars and power a rocket to return humans to Earth.
Moxie deputy principal investigator Jeffrey Hoffman, professor of the practice in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said: “This is the first demonstration of actually using resources on the surface from another planetary body and chemically transform them into something that would be useful for a human mission.”
The current version of the instrument is small by design to fit aboard the Perseverance rover and is designed to operate for short periods. A full-scale oxygen factory would include larger units that would ideally run continuously.
So far, Moxie has shown that it can produce oxygen at almost any time of the Martian day and year.
Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the Moxie mission at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, said: “The only thing we haven’t demonstrated is running at dawn or dusk, when the temperature changes substantially.
“We have an ace up our sleeve that will allow us to do that, and once we test it in the lab, we can reach this final milestone to show that we really can run at any time.”
If the system can operate successfully despite being turned on and off repeatedly, this would suggest that a large-scale system, designed to operate continuously, could do so for thousands of hours.
Hoffman said: “To support a human mission to Mars, we need to bring a lot of things from Earth, such as computers, spacesuits and habitats.
“But stupid old oxygen? If you can get there, do it – you’re way ahead of the game.”
The results are published in the journal Science Advances.
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