Small oxygen-producing machine shows promise on Mars

The potential for sustaining human missions to Mars took a major step forward this week, thanks to a small device aptly named MOXIE.

Short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, the lunchbox-sized machine has been successfully making oxygen on the red planet’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere since April 2021, according to a Tuesday statement from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“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,” MOXIE deputy principal investigator Jeffrey Hoffman said in the statement. “It’s historic in that sense.”

A study in the journal Science Advances cited by MIT’s researchers found that in seven experimental runs across various atmospheric conditions and seasons on the planet, MOXIE reached its target of producing at least 6 grams of oxygen per hour (or about the same amount as a small tree).

MOXIE is aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars in February 2021.

Oxygen is important not only for providing breathable air for people who may explore the planet, but also for providing rocket fuel for the trip back to Earth.

The machine first filters Martian air for contaminants and then pressurizes it. Next, it electrochemically splits the carbon dioxide-heavy air into oxygen and carbon ions. Those oxygen ions are isolated and recombined to form breathable oxygen, which gets a quality check from MOXIE before being released back into the Martian atmosphere.

Two hurdles remain to be cleared for the device, according to MOXIE’s principal investigator Michael Hecht.

One, they haven’t run it during either dawn or dusk, which is when the planet experiences significant temperature changes.

And two, researchers want to see how much MOXIE can handle when operating during the upcoming Martian spring when atmospheric density and carbon dioxide levels are high.

Still, they are encouraged by MOXIE’s output and believe that a properly designed full-scale system could run for thousands of hours on the planet to support human missions.

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