NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover extracts first oxygen from the red planet

The growing list of “firsts” for Perseverance, NASA’s new six-wheeled robot on the Martian surface, includes converting part of the Red Planet’s thin, carbon-rich atmosphere to oxygen. A toaster-sized experimental tool aboard Perseverance called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) got the job done. The test took place on April 20, the 60th Martian day, or sol, since the mission landed on February 18.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover extracts first oxygen from the red planet

As the tech demonstration has just begun, it could pave the way for science fiction to become a scientific fact, isolating and storing oxygen on Mars to help rockets that could lift astronauts off the planet’s surface. Such devices could also someday deliver breathable air to the astronauts themselves. MOXIE is an exploration technology survey, as well as the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) weather station, and is sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

“This is a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of STMD. “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. ” NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter makes history with its maiden flight over the surface of Mars.

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For rockets or astronauts, oxygen is critical, said lead researcher at MOXIE, Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory.

To burn its fuel, a rocket must have more oxygen by weight. Taking four astronauts off the Martian surface on a future mission would require approximately 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen. Conversely, astronauts living and working on Mars would require far less oxygen to breathe. “Astronauts who spend a year on the surface will use perhaps a metric ton between them,” Hecht said.

Transporting 25 tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars would be a daunting task. Carrying a one-ton oxygen converter – a larger and more powerful descendant of MOXIE that could produce those 25 tons – would be much cheaper and more practical.

The atmosphere of Mars is made up of 96% carbon dioxide. MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. A waste product, carbon monoxide, is emitted into the Martian atmosphere. NASA’s “Ingenuity” Mars helicopter takes off, makes its first flight to another planet.

The conversion process requires high levels of heat to reach a temperature of around 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius). To cope with this, the MOXIE unit is made of heat resistant materials. These include 3D printed nickel alloy parts, which heat and cool the gases flowing through it, and a lightweight airgel that helps retain heat. A thin gold coating on the outside of MOXIE reflects infrared heat, preventing it from radiating outward and potentially damaging other parts of the Perseverance.

In this first operation, MOXIE’s oxygen production was quite modest: about 5 grams, equivalent to about 10 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut. MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.

This tech demonstration was designed to ensure that the instrument survived the launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month journey into deep space, and landing with Perseverance on February 18. MOXIE is expected to extract oxygen at least nine more times over the course of a Martian year (nearly two years on Earth).

These oxygen production cycles will take place in three stages. The first phase will verify and characterize the operation of the instrument, while the second phase will run the instrument in variable atmospheric conditions, such as different times of the day and seasons. In the third phase, Hecht said, “we will push the boundaries” by trying new operating modes or by introducing “new wrinkles, like a race in which we compare operations at three or more different temperatures”.

“MOXIE is not only the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within STMD. It is the first technology of its kind that will help future missions “live off the earth”, using elements of the environment from another world, also known as in situ resource utilization.

“It’s either taking regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and running it through a processing plant, turning it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide – most of the atmosphere – and converting it into oxygen,” he said. “This process allows us to convert these materials in abundance into usable objects: propellant, breathable air or, in combination with hydrogen, water.”

More on perseverance:

A key focus of the Perseverance mission to Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and store Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

Subsequent NASA missions, in collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis. SpaceX wins $ 2.9 billion contract with NASA to build Moon Lander.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploratory approach, which includes the Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, operated on behalf of NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and operates the Perseverance rover operations.