The American space agency NASA says a device placed on Mars to produce oxygen has performed better than expected in a series of experiments.
The system is called MOXIE. It is designed to change, or convert, carbon dioxide captured from the Mars atmosphere into oxygen. The instrument works through a process called electrolysis. This process uses extreme heat to separate oxygen atoms from molecules of carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide makes up about 95 percent of the Martian atmosphere, NASA reports. The rest is mostly molecular nitrogen and argon. Molecular oxygen makes up just 0.16 percent of the Martian atmosphere.
But future exploration of Mars and possibly other planets by humans will require a large supply of oxygen. NASA has said the chemical element will be necessary for astronauts to breathe and to produce rocket fuel for launches carried out from the Martian surface.
NASA financed the MOXIE demonstration experiment. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created the device.
The MOXIE instrument was carried to Mars aboard NASA’s Perseverance explorer, or rover. Perseverance arrived on the Red Planet in February 2021. The device is a box-shaped instrument attached to the rover.
NASA reported its first results with the MOXIE system in April 2021. At the time, the space agency reported the device had successfully converted carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. In the first experiment, MOXIE produced 5.4 grams of oxygen in one hour. NASA then carried out a series of additional experiments to test the effectiveness of the system.
In a statement issued earlier this month, leaders of the demonstration project said MOXIE had completed its 16th and final experiment. They noted the device’s “impressive performance” had proven it was possible to capture oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. Such oxygen “could help supply breathable air or rocket propellant to future astronauts,” the statement said.
NASA said that MOXIE had produced a total of 122 grams of oxygen since Perseverance landed on Mars. This amount is about what a small dog would breathe in 10 hours. While the amount of oxygen is small, it represented the first experimental capture of a natural resource from the environment of another planet.
When working at its highest level of effectiveness, the instrument was able to produce 12 grams of oxygen in one hour. NASA says this is twice as much as its engineers first estimated the system could produce.
The MOXIE team has also been measuring the purity of the oxygen the device produces. Overall, it has reported the instrument produced oxygen that was at least 98 percent pure.
The latest experiments with MOXIE on Mars are designed to help NASA build a much larger version of the system. A full-sized device could be deployed on Mars in the future.
A NASA explanation of the instrument states: “The goal of a Big MOXIE would be to make and store all the oxygen that the astronaut and their rocket would need for their mission before they even launch.” Such a system would need to make between 2,000 to 3,000 grams of oxygen per hour, the space agency noted.
Trudy Kortes is the director of technology demonstrations at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C. She said the agency was pleased to be able to support such a technology. “By proving this technology in real-world conditions, we’ve come one step closer to a future in which astronauts ‘live off the land’ on the Red Planet,” Kortes said.
MIT’s Michael Hecht leads the MOXIE development operation. He said in a statement the team’s work will next center on working on the larger version of MOXIE. In addition, scientists will need to create equipment to liquefy and store the produced oxygen.
I’m Bryan Lynn.