Explained: NASA’s persistent mission has extracted oxygen on Mars. Why this is a big deal

Since reaching the Martian surface in February, NASA’s Perseverance mission has gained admiration for achieving feats that were thought only possible in science fiction, such as flying a helicopter there, which it did this week. The pioneering Martian research vehicle has now added a feather to its cap.

The U.S. space agency announced on Tuesday that a spacecraft could produce oxygen from the thin marine atmosphere for the first time – a development that has delighted the scientific community as it promises hope for future manned missions that can rely on this technology for astronauts. breathe and return to Earth.

How did Persistence produce oxygen on Mars?

In its first operation since arriving on the Red Planet, the Oxygen Resource Management Experiment (MOXIE) produced 5 grams of oxygen from carbon dioxide in the marine atmosphere, enough for an astronaut to breathe for 10 minutes.

On Mars, carbon dioxide makes up ~ 96% of the gas in the planet’s atmosphere. Oxygen is only 0.13%, compared to 21% in the Earth’s atmosphere. Like a tree on Earth, MOXIE inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen.

To produce oxygen, MOXIE separates oxygen atoms from molecules of carbon dioxide. It does this by using heat at a temperature of about 800 degrees Celsius, and also produces carbon monoxide as a waste product, which it releases into the Martian atmosphere.

A technology pointer, MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour, and is placed inside the Perseverance research vehicle. It is the size of a car battery, weighing 17.1 kg on Earth, but only 6.41 kg on Mars.

With its first successful run, MOXIE was able to prove that it had experienced its launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month journey through deep space, and landing on the Martian surface with Persistence. Over the next two years, MOXIE will extract oxygen nine times more.

MOXIE is just a test model. Future oxygen generators that come from its technology must be about 100 times larger to support human missions on Mars.

But, why is producing oxygen on the Red Planet so important?

A large amount of oxygen supply on Mars is essential for manned missions that plan to go there – not just for astronauts to breathe, but for rockets to use as fuel on their return to Earth.

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According to NASA’s press release, for four astronauts to take off from Mars, a future mission would require about 7 tons of rocket fuel and 25 tons of oxygen – about the weight of an entire space shuttle. In contrast, astronauts living and working on Mars would need much less oxygen to breathe, perhaps about one ton.

Scientists believe it will be a huge challenge to transport the 25 metric tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars for the return trip, and that their work will become much easier if the liquefied oxygen can be produced on the Red Planet. This is the role of MOXIE.

“When we send humans to Mars, we want them to return safely, and for that they need a rocket to lift the planet. Liquid oxygen fuse is something we could produce there and not have to bring with us. One idea would be to bring an empty oxygen tank and fill it on Mars, “said Michael Hecht, MOXIE’s chief researcher.

NASA hopes to build a greater technological successor to the experimental MOXIE that can do this job. Such a one-ton oxygen converter would be much more economical and convenient to bring to Mars, instead of 25 tons of oxygen, the agency argues.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator of the NASA Space Technology Mission Board (STMD), called MOXIE’s feat “a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars.”

“MOXIE has more work to do, but the results of this technology demonstration are full of promise as we aim for our goal to one day see humans on Mars. Oxygen is not just the things we breathe. A rocket fuse depends on oxygen, and future researchers will depend on the production of fuselage on Mars to return home. “

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