NASA extracts breathable oxygen from the thin air of Mars

© Reuters. The technicians at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lower the MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover

Posted by Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – NASA has announced another alien on its latest mission to Mars: the conversion of carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into pure, breathable oxygen, the US space agency announced on Wednesday.

The unprecedented production of oxygen, literally from the air on Mars, was achieved Tuesday by an experimental device aboard Perseverance, a six-wheeled science rover that landed on the Red Planet on February 18 after a seven-month journey from Earth.

When first activated, the toaster-sized instrument called MOXIE, short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, produced about 5 grams of oxygen, which is the equivalent of about 10 minutes of breathing for an astronaut, NASA said.

Although the initial production was modest, the feat was the first experimental extraction of natural resources from another planet’s environment for direct human use.

“MOXIE is not only the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s space technology mission director, said in a statement. She called it the first technology of its kind that will help future missions to live “on the land” of another planet.

The instrument works by electrolysis, which uses extreme heat to separate oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which make up about 95% of the atmosphere on Mars.

The remaining 5% of the Martian atmosphere, which corresponds to only about 1% of the dense earth, consists mainly of molecular nitrogen and argon. Oxygen exists in negligible trace amounts on Mars.

However, an abundant supply is seen as critical to later human exploration of the Red Planet, both as a sustainable source of breathable air for astronauts and a necessary ingredient in rocket fuel to fly them home.

Particularly daunting are the amounts required to launch rockets from Mars into space.

According to NASA, it would cost about 15,000 pounds (7 tons) of rocket fuel to remove four astronauts from the surface of Mars, combined with 55,000 pounds (25 tons) of oxygen.

Moving a 1-ton oxygen conversion machine to Mars is more practical than trying to move 25 tons of oxygen in tanks from Earth, said MOXIE lead researcher Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in NASA’s press release.

Astronauts who live and work on Mars might need a ton of oxygen to last a full year, Hecht said.

As a proof-of-concept, MOXIE should generate up to 10 grams per hour. Scientists plan to run the machine at least nine times under different conditions and speeds over the next two years, according to NASA.

The first oxygen conversion run came a day after NASA achieved the historic first ever controlled powered flight of an aircraft on another planet with a successful launch and landing of a miniature robotic helicopter on Mars.

Like MOXIE, the double-rotor chopper known as Ingenuity has taken a trip to Mars with Perseverance, the main task of which is to look for fossilized traces of ancient microbes that may have thrived on Mars billions of years ago.

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