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Gasps of surprise! Perseverance instrument converts Mars’ carbon dioxide into oxygen

Technicians at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory lower the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By Tajinder Bains

Washington, Apr 22 (MNN) In another first for NASA’s newest six-wheeled robot Perseverance on Mars surface, an instrument has accomplished the task of converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, the space agency said on Thursday.

A toaster-sized experimental instrument aboard Perseverance — Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) – converted some of the red planet’s thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen on April 20, the 60th Martian day, or sol, since the mission landed on February 18.

Mars’ atmosphere is 96 per cent carbon dioxide.NASA said that while the technology demonstration is just getting started, it could pave the way for science fiction to become science fact – isolating and storing oxygen on Mars to help power rockets that could lift astronauts off the planet’s surface.

“Such devices also may one day provide breathable air for astronauts themselves, NASA said.

MOXIE is an exploration technology investigation – as is the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyser (MEDA) weather station – and is sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for STMD.

“MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.”

For rockets or astronauts, oxygen is key, said MOXIE’s principal investigator, Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory.

After a 2-hour warm-up period, MOXIE began producing oxygen at a rate of 6 grams per hour. The speed was reduced two times during the run (labelled as ‘current sweeps’) in order to assess the status of the instrument. After an hour of operation, the total oxygen produced was about 5.4 grams, enough to keep an astronaut healthy for about 10 minutes of normal activity.

To burn its fuel, a rocket must have more oxygen by weight.

Getting four astronauts off the Martian surface on a future mission would require approximately 15,000 pounds (7 metric tonnes) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tonnes) of oxygen.

“In contrast, astronauts living and working on Mars would require far less oxygen to breathe. “The astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use one metric tonne between them,” Hecht said.
Hauling 25 metric tonnes of oxygen from Earth to Mars would be an arduous task. Transporting a one-tonne oxygen converter – a larger, more powerful descendant of MOXIE that could produce 25 tonnes – would be far more economical and practical.

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.

This technology demonstration was designed to ensure the instrument survived the launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month journey through deep space, and touchdown 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).

A key objective of Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life.

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