Explained: NASA’s Perseverance mission extracted oxygen from Mars. Why it’s a big deal

Since reaching the Martian surface in February, NASA’s Perseverance mission has gained admiration for accomplishing things that were thought to be possible only in science fiction, such as flying a helicopter there, which it did this week. The rover pioneer Mars has now added another feather to the lid.

The US space agency announced that on Tuesday, a device aboard the rover managed to produce oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere for the first time – a development that brought joy to the scientific community, as it promises hope for future manned missions that can be based on this. technology for astronauts to breathe and return to Earth.

How did Perseverance produce oxygen on Mars?

In its first operation since arriving on the Red Planet, the Mars Oxygen Resource Experiment (MOXIE) produced 5 grams of oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, enough for an astronaut to breathe for 10 minutes.

On Mars, carbon dioxide accounts for about 96% of the planet’s gas. Oxygen is only 0.13%, compared to 21% in the Earth’s atmosphere. Like a tree on Earth, MOXIE inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen.

To produce oxygen, MOXIE separates oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules. It does this using heat at a temperature of about 800 degrees Celsius and, in the process, also produces carbon monoxide as a residual product, which it releases into the Martian atmosphere.

A technology demonstrator, MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour and is placed inside the Perseverance rover. It is the size of a car battery, weighing 17.1 kg on Earth, but only 6.41 kg on Mars.

Through the first successful run, MOXIE was able to prove that it survived its launch from Earth, a journey of almost seven months through deep space and landing on the Martian surface with perseverance. Over the next two years, MOXIE is expected to extract oxygen nine more times.

MOXIE is just a test model. Future oxygen generators from its technology must be about 100 times larger to support human missions to Mars.

But why is it so important to produce oxygen on the Red Planet?

A substantial amount of oxygen supply to Mars is essential for manned missions that intend to go there – not just for astronauts to breathe, but for the rockets to use as fuel as they return to Earth.

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According to NASA’s press release, for four astronauts to take off from Mars, a future mission would require about 7 metric tons of rocket fuel and 25 metric tons of oxygen – around the weight of an entire space shuttle. Instead, astronauts living and working on Mars would need much less oxygen to breathe, maybe around a metric ton.

Scientists believe it will be a huge challenge to transport the 25 metric tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars for the return journey, and that their job would become much easier if liquid oxygen could be produced on the Red Planet. This is where the role of MOXIE comes into play.

“When we send people to Mars, we want them to return safely, and to do that, they need a rocket to rise from the planet. The liquid oxygen propellant is something we could produce there and we shouldn’t bring it with us. One idea would be to bring an empty oxygen tank and fill it on Mars, “said Michael Hecht, MOXIE’s chief investigator.

NASA hopes to build a larger technological descendant of the MOXIE experiment that can do this job. A one-ton oxygen converter of this kind would be much more economical and practical to take to Mars, instead of 25 metric tons of oxygen, the agency says.

Jim Reuter, associate director of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), called the MOXIE feat “a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars.”

“MOXIE has more work to do, but the results of this technological demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing people on Mars. Oxygen is not just what we breathe. The rocket propeller depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on the production of propulsion on Mars to make the journey home.