Nasa's Perseverance rover on Mars

Nasa’s Perseverance produces breathable oxygen on Mars

Image credit: Nasa

Nasa’s Perseverance rover has been able to generate 4.3 ounces (122g) of breathable oxygen – enough to sustain a human for three hours on the Red Planet.

Nasa has concluded its oxygen-generation experiment on Mars, with promising results for the future of space exploration. 

The achievement was made by the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) device, which generated oxygen by converting carbon dioxide in periodic bouts over two years.

MOXIE is a device aboard the Perseverance rover, which first touched ground on Mars in February 2021. Two months later, the lunch box-sized device was able to extract 5g of oxygen from the martial atmosphere. In the past two years, MOXIE has generated oxygen on 16 separate occasions, amounting to 4.3 ounces (122g) – enough to sustain an astronaut for three hours or a small dog for 10.

“MOXIE’s impressive performance shows that it is feasible to extract oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere – oxygen that could help supply breathable air or rocket propellant to future astronauts,” said Nasa deputy administrator Pam Melroy.

“Developing technologies that let us use resources on the Moon and Mars is critical to build a long-term lunar presence, create a robust lunar economy and allow us to support an initial human exploration campaign to Mars.”

At its peak, MOXIE created 12g of oxygen in an hour, which was double NASA’s aim, and it came in at least 98 per cent purity.

MOXIE’s oxygen production on Mars also represents the first demonstration of “in-situ resource utilisation”, which is the idea of harvesting and using a planet’s materials to make resources. 

The device first draws the Martian air in through a filter that cleans it of contaminants. This air is then pressurised and sent through the ‘Solid OXide Electrolyser’ (‘Soxe’), an instrument that electrochemically splits it into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide.

The oxygen ions are then isolated and recombined to form breathable, molecular oxygen, or O2, which Moxie then measures for quantity and purity before releasing it harmlessly back into the air, along with carbon monoxide and other atmospheric gases.

“We’re proud to have supported a breakthrough technology like MOXIE that could turn local resources into useful products for future exploration missions,” said Trudy Kortes, director of the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at Nasa. 

“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.”

According to Nasa, getting four astronauts off the Martian surface would take about 15,000 pounds (6.8 tonnes) of rocket fuel, combined with 55,000 pounds (25 tonnes) of oxygen.

In 2020, 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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