If you’re going to spend some time on Mars, it would be nice to have some oxygen, right?
MIT researchers say they’ve got a solution. They’ve successfully taken the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere on the Red Planet and made oxygen from it, which could mean fresh air for future explorers a long, long way from home.
The feat has been accomplished by an instrument the size of a lunchbox called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, which was carried to Mars as part of NASA’s Perseverance rover mission, MIT said in a statement.
The researchers reviewed what they’ve accomplished over a series of test runs in a study published this week in the journal Science Advances.
The achievement is the first time a planet’s own material has been used to make things that would otherwise have to be flown from Earth, MIT said. Up till now that’s only happened in science fiction.
“This is the first demonstration of actually using resources on the surface of another planetary body, and transforming them chemically into something that would be useful for a human mission,” said MOXIE deputy principal investigator Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of the practice in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “It’s historic in that sense.”
“To support a human mission to Mars, we have to bring a lot of stuff from Earth, like computers, spacesuits, and habitats,” Hoffman said in the MIT statement. “But dumb old oxygen? If you can make it there, go for it — you’re way ahead of the game.”
The rover landed in February 2021. By the end of 2021, MOXIE had produced oxygen on seven experimental runs, each time reaching its target of making six grams of oxygen per hour — about the rate of a modest tree on Earth, MIT said.
Someday, researchers hope, a scaled-up version of MOXIE could be sent to Mars ahead of a human mission, generating enough oxygen to sustain the astronauts and fuel a rocket for them to go back home, MIT said.
“We have learned a tremendous amount that will inform future systems at a larger scale,” said Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE mission at MIT’s Haystack Observatory.
Hoffman and Hecht’s MIT co-authors include MOXIE team members Jason SooHoo, Andrew Liu, Eric Hinterman, Maya Nasr, Shravan Hariharan, and Kyle Horn. Other collaborators hailed from multiple institutions including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, MIT said.
MOXIE works by drawing in the Martian atmosphere, filtering it, pressurizing it and sending it through a device called the Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE), developed and built by OxEon Energy, that splits the carbon dioxide into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide, MIT said. The oxygen ions are then isolated and recombined to form breathable molecular oxygen.
Martin Finucane can be reached at email@example.com.