On February 18, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover arrived on Mars’ deserted, arid surface. Attached to it was a special device called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment). On April 20, the instrument was able to create, for a very brief period of time, breathable air on the red planet.
MOXIE was an experimental device developed to “split carbon dioxide molecules into their component parts, creating about 10 minutes’ worth of breathable oxygen” (Grossman, 2021). It functions as an artificial “electrical tree,” the size of a toaster, that converts carbon dioxide into oxygen. Mars’s atmosphere is largely composed of carbon dioxide, the main elements necessary for this process.
In this instance, MOXIE produced only 5 grams of oxygen, but it can produce around 10 grams of oxygen per hour when running at full power. Nevertheless, at its current stages, the device’s purpose of creating oxygen was not to have air humans can breathe but for fuel. Michael Hecht, the principal investigator in the project, states this device was designed to make fuel for its return to planet Earth. However, it acts as a sort of prototype or model astronauts could use in the future in order to create their own rocket fuel on Mars. In theory, for a rocket to lift astronauts off Mars, it would need around 25 metric tons of oxygen (an excessive amount for a rocket to carry). Therefore, a device like MOXIE can be the key to producing fuel and solving the dilemma.
It is speculated that with this type of advanced technology, a permanent research station on Mars could be established in the distant future. Hecht remains optimistic of MOXIE’s potential: “That’s not something [a permanent research station] I expect to see in my lifetime, but something I expect to see progress towards in my lifetime, MOXIE brings it closer by a decade.”
Grossman, L. (2021, April 23). NASA’s Perseverance rover split CO2 to make breathable air on Mars. Science News. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/nasa-perseverance-rover-mars-oxygen-air
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