The Perseverance rover may be stationed at a lookout on Mars to capture any Ingenuity helicopter flights for the next two weeks, but it’s not wasting time.
On Tuesday, the rover successfully converted some of the abundant carbon dioxide on Mars into oxygen as the first test of its Moxie instrument. The name Moxie is short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or the In-situ Oxygen Sources Utilization Experiment.
After heating for about two hours, Moxie produced 5.4 grams of oxygen. This is enough to sustain an astronaut for about 10 minutes.
The instrument is the size of a toaster and is a demonstration of technology installed in the rover. If this experiment is successful, it could help with human exploration of Mars in the future.
The thin Martian atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide, which is not very helpful to humans who breathe oxygen.
Something that can efficiently convert that carbon dioxide into oxygen could help in more ways than one. Bigger and better versions of something like Moxie could in the future convert and store the oxygen needed for rocket fuel, as well as supply breathable air to life support systems.
The instrument works by dividing the carbon dioxide molecules, which include one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. It separates the oxygen molecules and emits carbon monoxide as a waste product.
Heat-tolerant materials, such as a layer of gold and airgel, were used to make the instrument, as this conversion process requires temperatures reaching nearly 800 degrees Celsius. These materials prevent heat from radiating and damaging any aspect of the rover.
“This is a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
‘Moxie has more work to do, but the results of this technology demonstration are promising as we move towards our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen is not just what we breathe. The rocket propellant is dependent on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on propellant production on Mars to make the journey home. ‘
To launch four astronauts from the surface of Mars, it would take about 15,000 pounds of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds of oxygen. Living on the surface of Mars, space explorers would consume much less.
“Astronauts who spend a year on the surface may use a metric ton of each other,” said Michael Hecht, Moxie principal investigator at the Haystack Observatory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a statement.
Ingenuity’s flight on Mars from a new angle
The difficulty of needing oxygen on Mars
Transporting so much oxygen from Earth to Mars would be incredibly difficult and expensive and would mean less space on the spacecraft for other needs.
However, an oxygen converter weighing around 1 ton, a large and powerful future generation from Moxie, could produce the required oxygen.
For future testing, Moxie will likely generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour. The instrument will run tests about nine more times over the next two years, and the research team will use the data to design future generations of Moxie.
Like the goals set for the Ingenuity helicopter, which is also a technology demonstration, the goal is for Moxie to push the limits of the instrument.
During the first phase, the team will evaluate how the instrument is working. A second phase will test Moxie in different conditions, such as the time of day or different seasons. And during the third and final phase, “we’re going to go further,” testing new modes of operation or introducing “unexpected twists, like a run in which we compare operations at three or more different temperatures,” Hecht said.
Technology like Moxie could help future astronauts essentially live off the earth and use the resources of their environment.
“Moxie is not just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
‘It’s taking regolith, the substance found in the soil, and running it through a processing plant, turning it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide, most of the atmosphere, and turning it into oxygen. This process allows us to turn these abundant materials into usable things: propellant, breathable air or, combined with hydrogen, water.
The positive results of this first test bring the missions to Mars one step closer to landing humans on the red planet.
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