How has NASA managed to manufacture oxygen on Mars?
The Mars In Situ Oxygen Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, run by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) with support from NASA, has been producing oxygen from the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere of the red planet from April 2021.
“MOXIE has produced oxygen seven times between landing in February 2021 and the end of 2021, and will continue to demonstrate oxygen production during night and day during all Martian seasons.”researchers have reported in a study that has just been published in the journal ‘Science Advances’.
Why do you want to make oxygen on Mars?
On each run, the instrument met its goal of producing six grams of oxygen per hour, about the rate of a modest tree on Earth.
The researchers anticipate that an expanded version of MOXIE could be sent to Mars before a human mission, to continuously produce oxygen at the rate of several hundred trees. With that ability, the system should generate enough oxygen to sustain humans once they arrive and fuel a rocket for the astronauts to return to Earth.
So far, the steady production of MOXIE is a promising first step toward that goal.
MOXIE oxygen production on Mars also represents the first demonstration of “on-site resource utilization”, which is the idea of collecting and using a planet’s materials (in this case, carbon dioxide on Mars) to generate resources (such as oxygen) that otherwise have to be transported from Earth.
“This is the first demonstration of actual resource use on the surface of another planetary body and its chemical transformation into something that would be useful for a mission human,” he says. it’s a statement MOXIE Deputy Principal Investigator Jeffrey Hoffman. “It’s historic in that sense.”
This is how MOXIE makes oxygen on Mars
The current version of MOXIE has a small footprint, to fit aboard the Perseverance rover, and is designed to run for short periods, starting up and shutting down with each run, depending on the rover’s exploration schedule and mission responsibilities. In contrast, a large-scale oxygen factory would include larger units that would ideally run continuously.
MOXIE has shown that it can reliably and efficiently convert Mars’ atmosphere into pure oxygen. It does this by first sucking in the Martian air through a filter that cleans it of contaminants. The air is then pressurized and sent through the Solid Oxide Electrolyzer (SOXE), an instrument developed and built by OxEon Energy, which electrochemically splits carbon dioxide-rich air into oxygen and carbon monoxide ions.
The oxygen ions are then isolated and recombine to form breathable molecular oxygen, or O2which MOXIE then measures for quantity and purity before harmlessly releasing it into the air, along with carbon monoxide and other atmospheric gases.
MOXIE will try to manufacture oxygen in other stations
“The atmosphere of Mars is much more variable than that of Earth,” says Hoffman. “Air density can vary by a factor of two throughout the year, and the temperature can vary by 100 degrees. One goal is to show that we can function in all seasons.”
Up to now, MOXIE has shown that it can produce oxygen at almost any time of the Martian day and year.
As MOXIE continues to produce oxygen on Mars, engineers plan to boost its capacity and increase its production, particularly in the Martian spring, when atmospheric density and carbon dioxide levels are high.