Explained: NASA’s Perseverance mission extracted oxygen to Mars. Because this is a big deal

Since reaching the Martian surface in February, NASA’s Perseverance mission has gained admiration for accomplishing feats that were only thought possible in science fiction, such as flying a helicopter there, which it did this week. The Mars rover pioneer has now added another feather to his hat.

The US space agency announced Tuesday that a device aboard the rover was capable of producing oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere for the first time, a development that has brought cheer among the scientific community, as it promises hope for future manned missions. that can rely on this technology to allow astronauts to breathe and return to Earth.

How did Perseverance produce oxygen on Mars?

In its first operation since arriving on the red planet, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) produced 5 grams of oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, enough to allow an astronaut to breathe for 10 minutes. .

On Mars, carbon dioxide makes up about 96% of the gas in the planet’s atmosphere. Oxygen is only 0.13%, compared to 21% in the Earth’s atmosphere. Like a tree on Earth, MOXIE inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen.

To produce oxygen, MOXIE separates oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules. It does this by using heat at a temperature of around 800 degrees Celsius and in the process also produces carbon monoxide as a waste product, which it releases into the Martian atmosphere.

A technology demonstrator, the MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour and is placed inside the Perseverance rover. It’s the size of a car battery, weighing 37.7 pounds (17.1 kg) on ​​Earth, but only 14.14 pounds (6.41 kg) on ​​Mars.

During its first successful run, MOXIE was able to prove that it survived the launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month journey through deep space, and a landing on the Martian surface with Perseverance. Over the next two years, MOXIE is expected to extract oxygen nine more times.

MOXIE is a test model only. Future oxygen generators that descend from its technology must be about 100 times larger to support human missions to Mars.

But why is it so important to produce oxygen on the Red Planet?

A substantial amount of oxygen supply to Mars is essential for manned missions that plan to go there – not just for astronauts to breathe, but for rockets to use as fuel as they return to Earth.

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According to the NASA press release, to get four astronauts off Mars, a future mission would require about 7 tons of rocket fuel and 25 tons of oxygen – about the weight of an entire space shuttle. In contrast, astronauts living and working on Mars would require far less oxygen to breathe, perhaps around one metric ton.

Scientists believe it will be a huge challenge to transport the 25 tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars for the return journey and that their job would become much easier if liquefied oxygen could be produced on the Red Planet. This is where the role of MOXIE comes into play.

“When we send humans to Mars, we want them to return safe and sound and to do so they need a rocket to take off from the planet. Liquid oxygen propellant is something we could produce there and we don’t have to take with us. One idea would be to take an empty oxygen tank and refill it to Mars, “said Michael Hecht, Principal Investigator of MOXIE.

NASA hopes to build a larger technological descendant of the experimental MOXIE capable of doing this job. A one-tonne oxygen converter of this type would be much cheaper and more practical to take to Mars, instead of 25 tons of oxygen, the agency says.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), called the MOXIE feat “a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars.”

“MOXIE still has a lot of work to do, but the results of this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move towards our goal of someday seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen isn’t just what we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen and future explorers will depend on propellant production on Mars to make the journey home. “