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MIT experiment MOXIE successfully produces oxygen on Mars

MOXIE being lowered into the Perseverance rover.
MOXIE being lowered into the Perseverance rover.R. Lannom

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory have participated in another discovery on Mars by producing a modest amount of oxygen on the Red Planet.

A team of scientists constructed a device called MOXIE — short for the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment — that was sent aboard NASA’S Perseverance, a rover that landed on Mars in February.

On Tuesday, MOXIE produced about 5 grams of oxygen, or about enough for an astronaut to breathe for 10 minutes, NASA announced.

Michael Hecht, who leads the MOXIE team at MIT, said the device acts like a tree — taking in the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere and converting it to breathable oxygen. When word came Tuesday that its first test was a success, the team was “giddy,” he said.

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Hecht, the associate director for research management at the Haystack Observatory, said he was amazed how well MOXIE held up well during its two-year journey to MARS.

“What’s amazing to me is that this instrument has been through two years of kind of brutal treatment, right? And it’s behaving as if nothing happened, as if we just turned it off and turned it on again right away,” he said.

“This was built like a brick. It’s just totally unaffected by being bolted in and turned upside down and launched and go[ing] through space ... None of it, none of it affected it. It’s just running beautifully.”

Hecht said no matter the amount of testing the team did on Earth it was impossible to truly emulate Mars, and so there was no way to be sure MOXIE would run as smoothly as it did.

“This is the whole reason we’re doing it. We can do most of the tests in the lab [but] you can never quite simulate Mars,” he said.

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Going forward, MOXIE will attempt to create more oxygen in less advantageous conditions as it continues to ramp up its activity, Hecht said.

“We chose a very conservative path to run it, a very cautious path to run this time ... we ran it in the dead middle of the night when the atmosphere is really cold, which actually means it’s thick, it’s denser, so there’ll be plenty of gas,” he said.

The next experiment, Hecht said, will be “a little more aggressive,” conducted at a “higher power level.”

“We’ll make more oxygen, run it in the middle of the day when the air is thinner. We’ll vary a few more things, turn a few more knobs. Not dramatically. We’re not going to go hog-wild, but we’re just inching toward more aggressive exploration,” he said.

MOXIE could pave the way for a research base on the Red Planet, much like the ones currently established in Antarctica, Hecht said.

“What I see as the next step ... is establishing a research station, much like we have research stations in Antarctica, that are stable, that are self-sustaining, and people go back and forth, and stuff goes back and forth,” he said.

A research base would allow NASA to “start to think about using native resources,” Hecht said.

“Whether it’s bringing ice back from the northern permafrost to provide water and another source of oxygen and a source of hydrogen, or whether it’s shoveling up the dirt and extracting the perchlorate to make solid rocket boosters, or whether it’s simply ... using the soil to make building materials to make bricks and walls and landing pads and roadways,” he said. “That whole enterprise just got a lot more practical.”

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MOXIE will have at least nine more opportunities to run over the course of the next Martian year — equivalent to two on Earth.

Charlie McKenna can be reached at charlie.mckenna@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @charliemckenna9.