Technicians at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory lower the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover

Nasa device extracts breathable oxygen from thin Martian air

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Reuters

Nasa has announced another first on its latest mission to Mars, converting carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into pure, breathable oxygen.

An experimental device achieved the extraction of oxygen out of thin air on Mars aboard Perseverance, a six-wheeled science rover that landed on the Red Planet on 18 February after a seven-month journey from Earth.

In its first activation, the instrument dubbed MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment) produced about 5g of oxygen, equivalent to roughly 10 minutes’ worth of breathing for an astronaut, Nasa said. Although the initial output was modest, the feat marked the first experimental extraction of a natural resource from the environment of another planet for direct use by humans.

“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within Nasa’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “It’s the first technology of its kind to help future missions ‘live off the land’ of another planet.”

The instrument uses extreme heat to separate oxygen atoms from molecules of carbon dioxide, which accounts for about 95 per cent of the atmosphere on Mars. The remaining 5 per cent of Mars’ atmosphere, which is only about one per cent as dense as Earth’s, consists primarily of molecular nitrogen and argon. Oxygen exists on Mars in negligible trace amounts, Nasa said.

But an abundant supply is critical to eventual human exploration of the Red Planet, both as a sustainable source of breathable air for astronauts and as a necessary ingredient for rocket fuel to fly them home, Nasa said, stressing that the volumes required for launching rockets into space from Mars are “particularly daunting”.

According to Nasa, getting four astronauts off the Martian surface would take about 15,000 pounds (7 tonnes) of rocket fuel, combined with 55,000 pounds (25 tonnes) of oxygen.

“Transporting a one-ton oxygen-conversion machine to Mars is more practical than trying to haul 25 tons of oxygen in tanks from Earth,” said MOXIE principal investigator Michael Hecht, of MIT. “Astronauts living and working on Mars would require perhaps one metric ton of oxygen between them to last an entire year.”

MOXIE generates up to 10g/h as a proof of concept, and scientists plan to run the machine at least another nine times over the next two years under different conditions and speeds, Nasa said.

The first oxygen conversion run came a day after Nasa achieved the first controlled powered flight of an aircraft on another planet with a successful take-off and landing of a miniature robot helicopter on Mars.

Like MOXIE, the twin-rotor chopper, dubbed Ingenuity, hitched a ride to Mars with Perseverance, whose primary mission is to search for fossilised traces of ancient microbes that may have flourished on Mars billions of years ago.

Last year, the European Space Agency (ESA) said it was making pure oxygen out of lunar dust, another project dedicated to making a human colony on the Moon possible.

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