The next rover to trundle across the surface of Mars will carry an MIT-designed instrument able to produce oxygen in a step toward supporting eventual human exploration of the planet.
NASA officials announced Thursday that they had selected seven instruments to be carried on the one-ton, $1.9 billion Mars 2020 rover. Many of those are “souped-up,” more-capable versions of technology on the rover Curiosity, officials said at a press briefing. But the next rover will also have a few new wrinkles. It will take cores of rock, for example, and store the most interesting samples for possible future return to earth.
It will also carry MOXIE, which is intended to demonstrate that it is possible to remove carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and use that raw material to produce oxygen that might one day be used as an ingredient in rocket fuel or to provide an air supply for human explorers.
On earth, oxygen is readily available in the atmosphere, and although we do not think about it very often, it is a necessary ingredient for engines that burn fuel. But spacecraft traveling in atmospheres without oxygen must carry their own tanks of it, which can be extremely heavy.
“When humans go to Mars, we’d like to get them there, but we’d also like to get them home,” said Michael Hecht, assistant director for research management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory in Westford, who will lead the development of that instrument. “We’d like to make as much of the stuff as we need to get them home. So the idea is to fill a large tank with oxygen and have it waiting for them.”
The instrument will be capable of extracting 22 grams of oxygen from the Martian atmosphere per hour, and is a small-scale demonstration of what would one day be needed if people were to set up an oxygen-generating factory on Mars. Hecht said the instrument will run 50 times during the mission, which is planned to run for one Martian year, or 687 earth days. When it does run, it will consume nearly all of the spacecraft’s power. The MIT engineers are also designing technology to burn the oxygen and use that as a power source for the rover, to pay back some of the energy it burns.
The project is also an important and unusual collaboration between teams that are focused on human exploration and unmanned science missions.
“If you can develop propellant, that really changes your mission design. If you can cache and put oxygen in tanks before your crew arrives, that’s tremendously important to us,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. “This will make sure we understand the risks associated with it and the planning for human missions eventually.”
The rover is scheduled to launch in 2020, carrying nearly 90 pounds of scientific instruments, which will cost about $130 million. The other instruments include a sophisticated camera on the mast of the rover capable of zooming in and out, a “SuperCam” that will use a laser to zap rocks and discern their composition, a kind of Martian weather vane capable of detecting wind speed, humidity, and other climate conditions, a ground-penetrating radar, and devices capable of detecting the mineral composition of rocks.
Hecht said he knew the competition was stiff for the oxygen-creating instrument, so he was surprised when he learned that his team had been chosen. The project had been first proposed in the late 1990s, for a lander robot that never went to Mars. He said that calling his colleagues to spread the good news felt a little bit like a scene from the movie “Space Cowboys,” in which a team of experienced, older pilots are called out of retirement to lead a space mission.