Whenever the first astronauts land on Mars, they may have a device the size of a microwave oven to thank for the air they breathe.
That’s because a small golden cube aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover has produced enough oxygen on the Red Planet to keep a human alive, at least for a while.
In total, the MOXIE instrument has produced 122 grams of oxygen since landing on Mars in 2021, enough to sustain an astronaut for about three hours and 40 minutes.
Experts believe future versions of the tool sent to Mars could store oxygen to help keep future astronauts alive or produce fuel to return home.
Perseverance and its numerous instruments (including MOXIE) landed on Mars in February 2021 after a nearly seven-month journey through space.
MOXIE, a small golden box-shaped instrument on Perseverance, uses electrolysis technology to generate oxygen
The six-wheeled rover is on Mars to search for signs of ancient life, search for water and collect samples of Martian soil and rock to one day return to Earth.
MOXIE: How it works
The oxygen production process begins with the intake of carbon dioxide.
Inside MOXIE, Martian CO2 is compressed and filtered to remove any contaminants. It is then heated, causing it to split into oxygen and carbon monoxide.
The oxygen is further isolated by a heated, charged ceramic component. Oxygen ions fuse into O2.
Carbon monoxide is released harmlessly into the atmosphere.
As of September 2023, MOXIE has produced 122 grams of oxygen since 2021, enough to sustain an astronaut for about three hours and 40 minutes. (NASA says 5.4 grams is enough to keep an astronaut healthy for about 10 minutes of normal activity.)
MOXIE has fulfilled its duty and its operations are now ending, NASA announced in September.
MOXIE first produced oxygen in April 2021 and has so far extracted oxygen from the Martian atmosphere a total of 16 times.
The instrument produces molecular oxygen through a clever process that separates an oxygen atom from each carbon dioxide molecule pumped from the thin Martian atmosphere.
As these gases flow through the system, they are analyzed for purity and the amount of oxygen produced.
At its most efficient, MOXIE has been able to produce 12 grams of oxygen per hour at 98 percent purity or better, NASA said.
According to the space agency, the modest golden cube has been more successful than its creators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) expected.
However, MOXIE has fulfilled its duty and its operations are now ending, although the parent Perseverance rover will continue and currently has no scheduled end date.
“MOXIE’s impressive performance demonstrates that it is possible to extract oxygen from the atmosphere of Mars, oxygen that could help supply breathing air or rocket propellant to future astronauts,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.
“Developing technologies that allow us to utilize resources on the Moon and Mars is critical to building a long-term lunar presence, creating a robust lunar economy, and allowing us to support an initial human exploration campaign on Mars.”
The important work of MOXIE (which traveled to Mars on the rover called Perseverance) raises hopes for future colonies on the Red Planet (pictured)
A full-scale test model of the Perseverance rover currently on Mars is displayed during a press conference for the Mars Sample Return mission in the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, April 11, 2023.
MOXIE was constructed from heat-resistant materials, such as a nickel alloy, and designed to withstand the scorching 1,470°F (800°C) temperatures required for operation.
A thin layer of gold ensures it doesn’t radiate its heat and damage the rover, and future versions could be much larger, capable of powering a rocket launch.
Now that MOXIE’s mission is over, scientists want to build a system that has an oxygen generator like MOXIE, but also a device that can liquefy, store, and store that oxygen.
Having oxygen on Mars would not only allow future astronauts to breathe, but could also make it unnecessary to transport large amounts of oxygen from Earth to use as rocket propellant on the return trip.
Such a follow-up to MOXIE could be part of NASA’s Artemis program, which prepares manned missions to the Moon but also lays the groundwork for missions to Mars.
The US space agency will send humans back to the lunar surface in 2025, although its crewed missions to the Red Planet will not take place until the 2030s.
Meanwhile, billionaire businessman Elon Musk believes he can beat NASA by sending manned flights to Mars as soon as the second half of this decade.
“This is a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter, adding that it will make future human missions more viable. Stock Image
Perseverance is the heaviest payload to ever reach the Red Planet: it weighs a car-sized 1,025 kg (2,259 lb).
The Mars rover is tasked with searching for traces of fossilized microbial life from Mars’ ancient past and collecting rock specimens to return to Earth.
However, Perseverance will not bring the samples to Earth: the rover is hiding them in certain locations on Mars to be collected in a future recovery mission, which is currently in development.
In addition to MOXIE, the rover carried a small helicopter called Ingenuity to Mars, which made the first powered flight to another planet, as well as more than 50 successive flights.
Hard at work: NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter search for life on the Red Planet
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission has launched to search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet in an attempt to help scientists better understand how life on Earth evolved in the early years of solar system evolution.
Called Perseverance, the car-sized lead rover is exploring an ancient river delta inside Jezero Crater, once filled with a 1,600-foot-deep lake.
The region is believed to have harbored microbial life between 3.5 and 3.9 billion years ago and the rover will examine soil samples for evidence of life.
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover (artist’s impression) is searching for signs of ancient life on Mars in an attempt to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet.
The $2.5bn (£1.95bn) Mars 2020 spacecraft launched on 30 July with the rover and helicopter inside and successfully landed on 18 February 2021.
Perseverance landed inside the crater and will slowly collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth for further analysis.
A second mission will fly to the planet and return the samples, perhaps in the late 2020s in partnership with the European Space Agency.
This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the red planet via NASA’s “sky crane” system.