Breath of Life: MOXIE Brings Oxygen Production to Mars

An MIT-led experiment successfully extracts breathable oxygen from the Red Planet’s carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere, paving the way for future human exploration.

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© Image Copyrights Nasa
© Image Copyrights Nasa
© Image Copyrights Nasa

On the red and dusty terrain of Mars, a device no larger than a lunchbox is displaying capabilities akin to a small tree on Earth. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, abbreviated as MOXIE, has been efficiently converting the carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere of Mars into breathable oxygen since its deployment in April 2021 as a component of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission and the Perseverance rover.

According to findings published in the journal Science Advances, MOXIE demonstrated the ability to generate oxygen during seven experimental runs, catering to diverse atmospheric scenarios. Each session managed to produce six grams of oxygen per hour, roughly comparable to the oxygen output of a modest Earth tree.

Mars' First "In-Situ Resource Utilization"

MOXIE's achievements represent the inaugural instance of "in-situ resource utilization" on Mars. This process revolves around the concept of utilizing a planet’s available materials, in this instance, Mars' carbon dioxide, to produce valuable resources like oxygen, which would traditionally be transported from Earth.

 

Jeffrey Hoffman, MOXIE's deputy principal investigator and a professor at MIT, expressed the significance of this accomplishment. “This pioneer attempt at harnessing resources present on another planetary body's surface and transforming them for human missions is genuinely historic,” he emphasized.

Tackling the Seasonal Air of Mars

While the current MOXIE iteration is compact, designed specifically to be accommodated aboard the Perseverance rover, it has proven its competence in efficiently converting Martian atmosphere into pure oxygen. Throughout its deployment since February 2021, the team has activated MOXIE seven times, each time adapting to the variable atmospheric conditions of Mars.

Preparing for Future Human Expeditions

As MOXIE continues its operations, engineers are eager to optimize its performance. The aim is to amplify its production capacity, especially during the Martian spring, characterized by high atmospheric density and elevated carbon dioxide levels. Observations also intend to identify potential wear and tear, providing insights into the resilience of such a system, especially given its frequent startups and shutdowns.

For human expeditions to Mars, while many essentials like computing hardware, protective suits, and living quarters will need to be transported from Earth, oxygen might not be on that list. As Hoffman put it, "Why carry the simple oxygen from Earth when you can produce it on Mars? This places us leaps ahead in the quest."

Breath of Life: MOXIE Brings Oxygen Production to Mars
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