In a week of major firsts on the Red Planet, NASA has announced that its Perseverance rover successfully turned carbon dioxide into oxygen in a planned test using an onboard instrument.
The technology could one day be used by human missions to the Red Planet.
Earlier this week on Monday, April 19, a small drone deployed by Perseverance on the surface called Ingenuity took flight, the first controlled aerial flight ever performed on another world.
Now the mission has used its Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) to produce useful oxygen on the surface.
“The results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
“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.”
The test occurred on Tuesday, April 20 as the rover sat nearby to Ingenuity, waiting for it to perform up to four more flight tests in the coming days.
The atmosphere of Mars is 96 percent carbon dioxide and just 0.13 percent oxygen, meaning that humans on future missions must bring enough of their own – or make it on the surface.
MOXIE is an example of how that might be done. With carbon dioxide molecules being made of one carbon atom and two oxygen, the instrument is designed to separate the atoms.
The instrument heats up to a temperature of 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius) in order to achieve the feat.
After MOXIE pulls CO2 in, it then pressurizes it and electrochemically splits it into carbon and oxygen using a cathode and anode.
And it was successful in doing so, managing to produce 5.4 grams of pure oxygen in an hour, “enough to keep an astronaut healthy for about 10 minutes,” said NASA.
Ultimately on future tests MOXIE should be capable of producing 10 grams of oxygen per hour, with a total of nine more tests planned over the next Martian year (two Earth years).
While only modest amounts so far, such tests could be crucial for human missions.
“To get four astronauts off the Martian surface on a future mission would require 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen,” Michael Hecht from the MIT Haystack Observatory, the lead on the instrument, said in a statement.
Taking that much mass to the surface would be exceedingly difficult. But if it could be produced there from the carbon dioxide on Mars, it could alleviate such a need – and provide a vital resource for astronauts.
“The astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use one metric ton between them to breathe,” added Hecht.
Such missions to Mars or likely more than a decade away. But proving technologies like MOXIE work makes them all the more plausible.
“The first run of MOXIE is a step in the right direction to bring us closer to the possibility of human missions to Mars,” said Jeffrey Hoffman from the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the deputy lead on the instrument.
“The technology that evolves from what we have been able to do here will be the grandchildren descended from the success of our MOXIE instrument.”