An instrument the size of a lunchbox has been successfully generating breathable oxygen in Marsdoing the work of a small tree.
Since February of last year, the Mars In Situ Oxygen Resource Utilization Experiment, or Moxie, has been successfully producing oxygen from the Red Planet’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.
The researchers suggest that an enlarged version of Moxie could be sent to Mars, continuously producing oxygen at the rate of several hundred trees, before humans go to the planet.
Moxie landed on the Martian surface as part of NASA’s Perseverance rover mission.
In one study, researchers report that, by the end of 2021, Moxie was able to experimentally produce oxygen over seven runs, in a variety of atmospheric conditions, including day and night, and during different Martian seasons.
On each run, it reached its goal of producing 6 g 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 MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said: “This is the first demonstration of actual resource use on the surface of another planetary body. , and chemically transform them into something that would be useful for a human mission.”
The current version of the instrument has a small footprint to fit aboard the Perseverance rover, and is designed to run for short periods. A large-scale oxygen factory would include larger units that would ideally run continuously.
So far, Moxie has shown that it can generate oxygen at almost any time of the Martian day and year.
Michael Hecht, principal investigator for the Moxie mission at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, said: “The only thing we haven’t shown 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 hit that last milestone to show that we really can run at any time.”
If the system can function successfully despite being repeatedly turned on and off, this would suggest that a large-scale system, designed to run continuously, could do so for thousands of hours.
Hoffman said: “To support a human mission to Mars, we have to bring back a lot of things from Earth, like computers, space suits, and habitats.
“But silly old oxygen? If you can get there, go for it, you’re way ahead of the game.”
The findings are published in the journal Science Advances.
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