A device designed by a group of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory is currently hurtling through space aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover, set to land Thursday on Mars.
The goal of MOXIE (Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment) is to figure out if carbon dioxide in the Red Planet’s atmosphere can be converted to oxygen, which could help future Mars explorers.
The team responsible for designing MOXIE is led by Dr. Michael Hecht, the observatory’s associate director for research management. Hecht said the project’s origins date back to 2013, when NASA first announced it was seeking researchers to propose and develop instruments aboard the rover.
“I’d say for me, conception was back sometime in 2013,” he said. “That’s when this announcement of opportunity kind of first came out, when we started writing a proposal and we started really putting together a system concept of the whole thing.”
Hecht worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 30 years before joining MIT in June 2012. In his time at the JPL, he worked on similar projects to Perseverance, most notably the Phoenix lander in 2008. He said he first got involved with Perseverance at the urging of a former colleague.
The true starting point of the MOXIE project came years prior to 2013, with the initiation of some key technology.
“If there’s a starting point, you’d almost have to go back to the mission that never was, the Mars 2001 survey, or mission, that began planning back in the mid-90s,” he said. “On that mission, there was an instrument coming out of the Johnson Space Center called MIP... and that was trying to accomplish many of the same things as MOXIE on an even smaller scale.”
MOXIE is a device that will attempt to take the carbon dioxide in Mars’s atmosphere and transform it into breathable oxygen, essentially emulating a tree, according to Hecht.
“If we could plant a tree on Mars, it would do what MOXIE is doing. But we can’t, so we build a machine to do it,” he said. “If we’re serious about having a presence on Mars and having a research base, we need a way to make oxygen. We can’t just keep shipping it in from Earth, we can’t call Amazon for overnight delivery of oxygen.”
Hecht said he is usually the calming voice in the room, but with everyone on the team confident Perseverance’s landing will go smoothly, he is starting to get nervous.
“It’s not going to destroy everything we’ve done if it is not successful, but yet I’m starting to get worried for a kind of a funny reason, because I’m sensing too much confidence around me,” he said.
His nerves come from the landing of the rover itself, he said. Perseverance will undertake a similar landing to the Curiosity rover from 2012. The delay in radio communication between Earth and Mars makes manual control of the rover’s landing impossible, according to NASA. The interval between the rover entering the atmosphere and landing has become known as the “seven minutes of terror,” Hecht said.
“Succeeding once is not a guarantee you’ll succeed again ... landing this way on Mars,” he said. “All I can say is that takes a lot of moxie!”
Regardless of whether the landing is successful, the team at MIT has learned a lot from MOXIE already, Hecht said.
“The goal of doing this, in large, part is to learn how to do the next generation that really counts,” he said. “What we have to do for people is we need... to scale this thing up... every time we design and test a subsystem, a part, of Moxie we learn what’s possible, what limits its performance, what limits its size, and what we need to do to make it full-size full-scale and we’ve done a lot of that.”
Perseverance’s main mission is to seek to detect potential signs of ancient life on the Red Planet by gathering rocks and soil from the Jezero crater which scientists believe used to hold a lake, according to NASA’s website. Then, if all goes well, another rover will retrieve the samples in 2026. The earliest the rover could return is 2031, according to NASA.
When he left the JPL, Hecht said he thought he was done with Mars, but the Red Planet proved inescapable.
“When I came back to Boston, I thought I was leaving the planetary science part of my career behind me, but it followed me,” he said. “I did not get much of a break, which is OK by me.”
Charlie McKenna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @charliemckenna9.