NASA has achieved another feat on its Mars mission, by converting carbon dioxide to a pure, breathable form of oxygen, as shared by the agency on 21st April, 2021.
This one-of-a-kind process was achieved via an experiential device aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars on 18th February, 2021, after a seven-month long journey from Earth.
The toaster-sized instrument dubbed MOXIE, short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment, provided about 5g of oxygen in its first activation, NASA said. That's about 10 minutes of breathing for an astronaut, in its first attempt. Although the initial results were modest, the achievement marked the first experimental exploitation of natural resources from another planet's ecosystem for direct human use.
“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement to a portal. It was the first technology of its kind, she said, that would enable future missions to "live off the land" of another world.
Understanding The Workings
The instrument works by electrolysis, which uses high heat to remove oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which make up about 95 per cent of Mars' atmosphere. The remaining 5% of Mars' atmosphere is mostly molecular nitrogen and argon, despite the fact that it is just around 1% as thick as Earth's. On Mars, there is just a trace amount of oxygen.
However, an abundant supply is considered essential for future human exploration of Mars, both as a source of breathable air for astronauts and as a component of rocket fuel to return them home. The amount of material needed to launch rockets into space from Mars is especially overwhelming.
MOXIE principal investigator Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in a NASA news release that transporting a one-ton oxygen-conversion system to Mars is more realistic than attempting to carry 25 tonnes of oxygen in tanks from Earth. He estimates that astronauts living and working on Mars would take about one metric tonne of oxygen between them to last a year.
As a proof of concept, MOXIE is built to produce up to 10g per hour, and scientists intend to run the machine at least nine more times over the next two years under various conditions and speeds, according to NASA.
The first oxygen conversion run took place only one day after NASA successfully took off and landed a miniature robot helicopter on Mars, marking the ground-breaking first operated powered flight of an aircraft on another planet.