‘It’s historic:’ Small ‘MOXIE’ device makes oxygen on Mars


FILE – In this April 30, 2021, file image taken by the Mars Perseverance rover and made available by NASA, the Mars Ingenuity helicopter, right, flies over the surface of the planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS via AP, File)

(NewsNation) — A device that scientists describe as the size of a lunchbox is successfully generating breathable oxygen on Mars, essentially showing it can do the work of a small tree.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, led by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has successfully made oxygen from Mars’ carbon-dixoide-rich atmosphere since April 2021, according to a news release from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MOXIE, which is part of NASA’s Perseverance rover and Mars 2020 mission, started making oxygen about two months after it touched down on the Martian surface.

A study published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday showed that by the end of 2021, MOXIE was able to produce oxygen on seven experimental runs in a variety of atmospheric conditions in both the day and night.

This oxygen production is the first demonstration of “in-situ resource utilization,” or harvesting and using a planet’s materials to make resources that would have otherwise have to be transported from Earth. MOXIE converts Mars’ atmosphere into pure oxygen by first drawing the Martian air in through a filter that cleans it of contaminants. The air is then pressurized, MIT said, and sent through the Solid Oxide Electrolyzer, which splits the carbon dioxide into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide.

These oxygen ions are isolated and recombined to form oxygen, which MOXIE then measures for “quantity and purity” before releasing it and other atmospheric gases back in the air.

MOXIE reached its target of making six grams of oxygen per hour in each run, the news release said, which is about “the rate of a modest tree on Earth.”

“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, a professor of the practice in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said in a statement. “It’s historic in that sense.”

MOXIE engineers started up the instrument seven times throughout the Martian year.

Now, researchers think a “scaled-up” version of the instrument could go to Mars before a human mission, in order to produce the same amount of oxygen as several hundred trees.

“At that capacity, the system should generate enough oxygen to both sustain humans once they arrive, and fuel a rocket for returning astronauts back to Earth,” according to MIT.

Currently, MOXIE is small enough to fit inside the Perseverance rover and is built to run for short periods. A full-scale oxygen factory, on the other hand, would include larger units that would “ideally run continuously,” MIT said.

“The only thing we have not demonstrated is running at dawn or dusk, when the temperature is changing substantially,” Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE mission at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, said in a statement. “We do have an ace up our sleeve that will let us do that, and once we test that in the lab, we can reach that last milestone to show we can really run any time.”

Engineers plan to increase the system’s production and capacity as they continue testing it.

“The next run coming up will be during the highest density of the year, and we just want to make as much oxygen as we can,” Hecht says. “So we’ll set everything as high as we dare, and let it run as long as we can.”

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