Science & Technology

Oxygen on Mars? Lunchbox-sized gadget makes it possible

It is the 1st instance of utilisation of resources in a planet’s atmosphere to meet human needs

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 01 September 2022

A small box sent with the Perseverence rover of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration has produced oxygen in Mars with components from the planet’s atmosphere, according to a new report. 

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) works like a tree, splitting carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere to produce pure oxygen. 

The first successful conversion was two months after the rover landed on Mars in April 2021. Since then, seven rounds of experiments were successfully conducted with Moxie in various times of the day and year, according to the report. 

This is the first time material needed for human missions on Mars was generated with resources from the planet and not those carried from Earth, said MOXIE deputy principal investigator Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of the practice in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. 

The instrument produced 6 grams of oxygen per hour, similar to a moderate-sized tree. The project can be scaled up ahead of human missions to continuously produce oxygen “at the rate of several hundred trees”, the scientists wrote.

In this scale, it can also fuel the rocket to bring the astronauts back home, they said. 

Inside Moxie, Martian air is first filtered in and pressurised. “It is then sent through the Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE), an instrument developed and built by OxEon Energy, that electrochemically splits the carbon dioxide-rich air into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide,” the scientists wrote in the report.

The oxygen ions are isolated and recombined to form breathable, molecular oxygen (O2), they explained. Finally, the gas is measured and tested for purity before being released into the atmosphere.

Several aspects of seamless oxygen production still remain to be seen, according to the authors. The team is yet to test the machine at dawn and dusk as well as in certain times of the Martian year. 

The atmosphere on the Red Planet varies greatly through the day and in different seasons. “The density of the air can vary by a factor of two through the year, and the temperature can vary by 100 degrees. One objective is to show we can run in all seasons,” said Hoffman.

It is important to get a complete overview of Moxie’s performance and damage assessment before it can be flagged off for use, the scientists wrote.

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