The prospect of sending humans to Mars has taken a big leap forward after researchers confirmed that an experiment on the red planet has been able to produce oxygen “in a variety of atmospheric conditions.”
With Mars’ atmosphere comprising almost entirely of carbon dioxide, scientists have been keen to find a way of producing oxygen on the distant planet to support human missions, the first of which could take place in the 2030s.
NASA’s current Mars mission, which landed the Perseverance rover on the planet in February 2021, carried with it MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-led technology demonstration aimed at creating oxygen on Mars.
The lunchbox-sized instrument succeeded in its quest in April, becoming the first machine to produce oxygen on another planet.
That was a huge breakthrough, but news this week highlights even greater progress, as scientists confirmed MOXIE has now succeeded with seven experimental runs in “a variety of atmospheric conditions, including during the day and night, and through different martian seasons.” The team said it still needs to demonstrate the technology during dawn and dusk, “when the temperature is changing substantially,” but it’s confident it can achieve this.
A report on MIT’s website said that during each of its seven runs, MOXIE was able to reach its target of producing six grams of oxygen per hour, “about the rate of a modest tree on Earth.”
The success gives scientists hope that a larger, more powerful version of MOXIE could be deployed for a human mission to Mars, giving astronauts breathable air and eliminating the need to transport oxygen from Earth.
MOXIE’s work is also helping engineers learn more about how to isolate and store oxygen on Mars, a process that’s vital for launching rockets off the planet’s surface to bring astronauts home.
“We have learned a tremendous amount that will inform future systems at a larger scale,” said Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE mission at MIT’s Haystack Observatory.
Commenting on the state of the experiment so far, MOXIE deputy principal investigator Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of the practice in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said: “This is the first demonstration of actually using resources on the surface of another planetary body, and transforming them chemically into something that would be useful for a human mission. It’s historic in that sense.”
According to MIT, MOXIE works its magic by first pulling in martian air in through a filter to remove contaminants. The air is then pressurized and sent through an instrument called the Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE), which electrochemically splits the carbon dioxide-rich air into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide. The oxygen ions are then isolated and recombined to form breathable, molecular oxygen.
Now that MOXIE has proved it can make oxygen, scientists plan to see how it copes being pushed to capacity in an experiment to increase production.
But to get this far is already impressive, and gives NASA another piece to fit in the complex jigsaw that it needs to complete to one day fly astronauts to Mars.
“To support a human mission to Mars, we have to bring a lot of stuff from Earth, like computers, spacesuits, and habitats,” Hoffman said. “But dumb old oxygen? If you can make it there, go for it — you’re way ahead of the game.”