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New Mars rover to carry MIT experiment that will study production of oxygen

This artist’s rendering shows NASA’s Perseverance rover in action, exploring the Jezero Crater on Mars.
This artist’s rendering shows NASA’s Perseverance rover in action, exploring the Jezero Crater on Mars.NASA/JPL-Caltech

An experiment created by researchers at MIT is on board the new Mars rover, and scientists say it could allow future human explorers to create oxygen while on the Red Planet.

The rover, named Perseverance, took off Thursday but won’t touch down on Mars until February 2021. Once it does, it will collect rock and soil samples and search for signs of life on the planet, including past environments that could have supported microorganisms, according to NASA.

The MIT experiment will test a small mechanical tree that will convert carbon dioxide in the Martian air to oxygen while filtering out dust and other small particles. This oxygen will be released back into the planet’s atmosphere after its purity is analyzed.

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The tree is named the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment and dubbed MOXIE, after the soft drink that was invented in Massachusetts in the 1880s.

MOXIE could have a big impact on future missions if it is successful, according to a statement from MIT.

Oxygen tanks take up a fair amount of space on board spacecrafts, which require a lot of fuel to exit Earth’s gravitational pull during launches.

“Not only do you need oxygen for people to breathe, but you need it for the rocket to breathe, too. If you are burning fuel, you need oxygen to consume it,” said Michael Hecht, MOXIE principal investigator and director of research at MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford, in the statement.

In March 2019, members of NASA's Mars 2020 project installed the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), which is no bigger than a car battery, into the chassis of the Perseverance rover.
In March 2019, members of NASA's Mars 2020 project installed the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), which is no bigger than a car battery, into the chassis of the Perseverance rover.NASA/JPL

“Instead of taking [oxygen] with us, why not just make it when we get there as we need it?” Hecht asked. “Oxygen exists on Mars, just not in a form we can use it. So that is the problem we were trying to solve with MOXIE.”

Another source of oxygen on Mars could be the ice found under the planet’s surface, researchers said. But mining this ice would require scientists to create complex machinery that could drill through the planet’s surface.

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“With the mining approach, you have to mine the ice, refine and process it to release the oxygen, and bring it back, which is just not something we can do robotically,” Hecht said. “The Martian atmosphere is about 96 percent carbon dioxide, so we built a little mechanical tree, because that is much easier than building a miniature, self-contained mining company.”

The MOXIE system makes oxygen by feeding carbon dioxide into its Solid Oxide Electrolyzer, which will split the molecule into oxygen and carbon monoxide, the statement said.

MOXIE will produce oxygen at least 10 times during Perseverance’s mission, researchers said. The machine is one of seven experiments on board, and will be tested under as many different environmental conditions on Mars as possible.

Data about MOXIE’s performance will be sent back to a lab on MIT’s campus to be analyzed.

MIT also has other ties to Perseverance. Tanja Bosak and Ben Weiss, both professors from the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, will help choose which samples of the planet’s surface will be brought back to Earth to be analyzed, according to the statement.

Ariel Ekblaw, a graduate student and founder of the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, also contributed to a rover experiment that will search for evidence of microorganisms once living on Mars.

Caroline Enos can be reached at caroline.enos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.

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