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NASA’s rover is producing more oxygen on Mars than ever before

NASA’s rover is producing more oxygen on Mars than ever before

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from: Tanya Banner

NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter landed on Mars in February 2021. (File photo) © dpa/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

An instrument on the Perseverance rover is testing oxygen production on Mars. Now the toaster-sized “Moxie” has set a new record.

WASHINGTON, DC – In the distant future, people are expected to live and work on Mars – and work is already underway on various fronts to make this vision of the future possible. The most obvious is the massive, reusable spacecraft that private space company SpaceX is currently testing, with long-term plans to colonize Mars. But NASA has also been busy for some time laying the groundwork for future human exploration of Mars.

A particularly exciting aspect of this fundamental work concerns oxygen on Mars. There’s very little of that on the Red Planet — the oxygen content in the air on Mars is just 0.13 percent, compared to 21 percent on Earth, according to NASA. However, enough oxygen isn’t just important for astronauts on Mars to be able to breathe. Oxygen is also necessary to propel the rocket.

NASA’s Moxie instrument produces oxygen on Mars

“To support a human mission to Mars, we need to bring in a lot of things from Earth—computers, spacesuits, and shelters. But oxygen? If you produce it there, you’re ahead of the game,” explains Jeff Hoffman, who works on the Moxie machine at NASA. This is an instrument aboard the Mars rover Perseverance, which is a test of oxygen production on Mars.

“Moxie” (Mars Oxygen Resource Utilization Experiment) extracts oxygen from Mars’ thin atmosphere. The pilot experiment was successful for the first time on April 20, 2021. At that time, the device, which was about the size of a toaster, produced about five grams of oxygen — that amount the astronaut would use up in about ten minutes. In 2021, the instrument has been run a total of seven times and has been able to demonstrate that it was not disturbed by the various conditions on Mars.

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The Moxie is about the size of a toaster and is housed inside NASA’s Perseverance rover. On Mars, oxygen is extracted from the air. (archive photo) © NASA/JPL Caltech

The Mars instrument has produced more oxygen than ever before

Since then, the researchers supervising Moxie have gotten bolder. Meanwhile, “Moxie” produces oxygen for about 1000 minutes, how mentioned. “It’s been an exciting journey,” explains the scientist responsible for the instrument, Michael Hecht (MIT), to the gate. During the month of June, “Moxie” set a new record: the small machine on the Mars rover “Perseverance” produced twice as much oxygen as it had previously produced. “We got great results,” Hecht says happily, but he also emphasizes: “This was the riskiest we’ve ever done. It could have gone wrong.”

Specifically, “Moxie” was active on June 6, 2023 for 58 minutes and, according to Hecht, produced 12 grams of oxygen per hour. The goal of the technology demonstration was to extract six grams of oxygen per hour on Mars. “We rolled the dice for a bit, and then we held our breath and saw what happened,” the researcher recalls.

A large instrument “Moxie” would be needed to feed humans on Mars

Of course, the amounts of oxygen produced by “Moxie” on Mars are far from sufficient for a human crew. To take off from Mars, a small human crew needs about 25 to 30 tons of oxygen, Calculated by NASA. There are still no concrete plans to build a large “Moxie” instrument, but ideas already do exist: A good window for a Mars launch opens about every 26 months. Ideally, everything the crew needs would already be available before launch on the Red Planet – which means a large “moxy” would have to be sent to Mars before it can be launched in front of the crew.

In order to produce enough oxygen for the duration of a human crew’s stay on Mars before a human crew arrives, the large “Moxie” instrument would have to produce 2,000 to 3,000 grams of oxygen per hour — day and night without interruption for 20 months. So it must be flown to Mars in the launch window before the human crew and then work through it for 20 months. The US space agency estimates that a large device that can produce enough oxygen is about the size of a small refrigerator and weighs about a ton. But it will be many years before people first set foot on Mars. (unpaid bill)