The growing list of “premiums” for Perseverance, NASA’s newest six-wheeled robot on the Martian surface, includes turning some of the Red Planet’s thin, carbon-rich atmosphere into oxygen.
In a press release, NASA said that an experimental instrument the size of a toaster aboard Perseverance, called the Mars In-Oxygen Oxygen Experiment (MOXIE), completed the task. The test took place on April 20, the 60th Martian day, or ground, since the mission landed on February 18.
“While the demonstration of technology is just beginning, it could pave the way for fiction to become a scientific fact – the isolation and storage of oxygen on Mars to help rockets that could lift astronauts off the planet’s surface. air for the astronauts themselves. MOXIE is a technological exploration investigation – as is the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) – and is sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and the Exploration and Human Operations Mission Directorate, “NASA said.
“This is a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for STMD. “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 engine depends on oxygen. and future explorers will depend on fuel production on Mars to make the journey home. “
For rockets or astronauts, oxygen is essential, said MOXIE lead researcher Michael Hecht of the Haystack Observatory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In order to burn its fuel, a rocket must have more oxygen by weight. Unloading four astronauts from the Martian surface in a future mission would require about 15,000 pounds (seven metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen. Instead, astronauts living and working on Mars would need much less oxygen to breathe. “Astronauts who spend a year on the surface will probably use a metric ton between them,” Hecht said.
Transporting 25 metric tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars would be a difficult task. Transporting a one-ton oxygen converter – a larger and more powerful descendant of MOXIE that could produce those 25 tons – would be much more economical and practical.
Mars’ atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide. MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. A residual product, carbon monoxide, is emitted into the Martian atmosphere.
The conversion process requires high levels of heat to reach a temperature of about 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius). To do this, the MOXIE unit is made of heat-tolerant materials. These include 3D-printed nickel alloy parts that heat and cool the gases flowing through it and a light airgel that helps maintain heat. A thin layer of gold on the outside of the MOXIE reflects infrared heat, preventing it from radiating to the outside and potentially damaging other parts of perseverance.
In this first operation, MOXIE’s oxygen production was quite modest – about five grams, the equivalent of about 10 minutes worth of breathable oxygen for an astronaut. MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.
This technological demonstration was designed to ensure that the instrument survived the launch from Earth, a journey of almost seven months through deep space and the touchdown with Perseverance on February 18. year (almost two years on Earth).
These cycles of oxygen production will come in three phases. The first phase will check and characterize the function of the instrument, while the second phase will run the instrument in various atmospheric conditions, such as different times of the day and seasons. In the third phase, Hecht said: “we will push the envelope” – trying new modes of operation or introducing “new wrinkles, such as a round in which we compare operations at three or more different temperatures”.
“MOXIE is not just the first instrument to produce oxygen in another world,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at STMD. It is the first technology of its kind that will help future missions “live off the land”, using elements of the environment of another world, also known as the use of resources in situ.
“It takes regolith, the substance you find on earth, to introduce it through a processing plant, turn it into a large structure or take in carbon dioxide – most of the atmosphere – and you turn it into oxygen, ”she said. “This process allows us to turn these abundant materials into usable things: propellant, breathable air or, combined with hydrogen, water.”
A key goal of the Perseverance on Mars mission is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and hide the rock and Martian rule (broken rock and dust), according to NASA.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission is part of NASA’s approach to exploring the Moon on Mars, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon, which will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.