Breakthrough In Converting Carbon Dioxide To Oxygen On Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover has made a breakthrough in converting the thin atmospheric carbon dioxide present on Mars to oxygen.

A toaster-size, experimental instrument aboard the six-wheeled robot on the Martian surface called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) accomplished the task on Tuesday, 60 days after the mission landed.

NASA said that the technology demonstration could pave the way for isolating and storing oxygen on Mars to help power rockets that could lift astronauts off the planet’s surface. Such devices also might one day provide breathable air for astronauts themselves.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), said this is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home,” he added.

For rockets or astronauts, oxygen is key. To burn its fuel, a rocket must have more oxygen by weight. Getting four astronauts off the Martian surface on a future mission would require approximately 15,000 pounds of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds of oxygen. In contrast, astronauts living and working on Mars would require far less oxygen to breathe. “The astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use one metric ton between them,” said MOXIE’s principal investigator Michael Hecht.

Mars’ atmosphere is filled with 96 percent carbon dioxide. MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules. A waste product, carbon monoxide, is emitted into the Martian atmosphere in the process.

In its first operation, MOXIE produced just 5 grams of oxygen. MOXIE is expected to extract oxygen at least nine more times over the course of nearly two years.

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