In a groundbreaking experiment conducted on Mars, scientists have successfully demonstrated the possibility of extracting breathable oxygen from the planet’s thin atmosphere. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) Experiment, also known as MOXIE, is a compact device housed within NASA’s Perseverance rover. Developed by MIT scientists, this project has made significant strides in generating a small yet consistent supply of oxygen on Mars. The success of MOXIE is a crucial step towards supporting future astronauts with breathable air and rocket propellant, paving the way for long-term lunar and Martian exploration.
The MOXIE Experiment
MOXIE has been operational since the Perseverance rover landed on Mars in February 2021. Although not continuously active, scientists on Earth have sent commands to MOXIE to observe its performance under various Martian conditions. Over 16 runs, the device has produced a total of 122 grams of oxygen, equivalent to sustaining a small dog for 10 hours or a human for 4 hours. The process involves electrolysis, where a current is used to break down carbon dioxide molecules. Martian air is filtered and cleaned before being compressed and heated. The Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE) splits the carbon dioxide, releasing oxygen ions and carbon monoxide. The extracted oxygen is then recombined into molecular oxygen (O2), which is essential for human survival. The quantity and purity of the oxygen are measured before being released back into the Martian atmosphere. Each run takes a few hours, with MOXIE collecting oxygen for one hour per experiment, followed by a shutdown phase.
MOXIE has demonstrated its capability to produce up to 10 grams of breathable oxygen during its operational hour, enough to sustain an astronaut for approximately 20 minutes. While the actual production varied across experiments, the device achieved close to its targeted output on the sixteenth run, extracting around 9.8 grams of oxygen on August 7th. This significant achievement highlights the potential of Mars to provide a sustainable oxygen supply, even with its thin and tenuous atmosphere. Importantly, MOXIE’s success indicates that future missions could rely on local resources, reducing the need for extensive oxygen cargo from Earth.
A Stepping Stone to Self-Sufficiency
Building on the knowledge gained from MOXIE, researchers under the leadership of physicist Michael Hecht from MIT aim to develop a comprehensive system for oxygen extraction on Mars. This system would include an enhanced version of the oxygen-extracting device, a means to liquefy the gas, and a storage solution. These advancements are essential for the self-sufficiency of future Martian explorers. Besides supporting the breathing requirements of a team of astronauts, a significant volume of oxygen, approximately 500 metric tons, will be necessary for propelling spacecraft. Although further testing and problem-solving are required before prolonged human presence on Mars becomes feasible, the success of MOXIE represents a significant breakthrough.
While oxygen production is just one piece of the puzzle, it highlights the need to prioritize and validate technologies for a successful Martian mission. Scientists and researchers will continue to work on addressing the challenges and complexities associated with long-term stays on the red planet. However, the extraction of breathable oxygen brings us closer to achieving self-sufficiency and reducing reliance on Earth for crucial resources. As exploration of Mars progresses, it is imperative to develop innovative solutions that utilize local materials, paving the way towards a sustainable lunar economy and ultimately supporting human explorations on Mars.
The MOXIE experiment has proven that oxygen extraction from the Martian atmosphere is not only feasible but also crucial for future space missions. By successfully producing breathable oxygen on Mars, researchers have taken an essential step forward in creating a sustainable environment for human exploration. The findings from MOXIE will undoubtedly guide the development of more advanced systems for oxygen extraction and storage, making it possible for astronauts to embark on extended missions to Mars. As we unravel the mysteries of the red planet, the ability to harness local resources is becoming a key component in space exploration, ensuring a future where humanity can venture farther into the cosmos.