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Thursday, October 21, 2021

NASA ‘makes oxygen’ out of air from Mars for the first time in history

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Living on another planet could be possible in the future, according to the latest experiment by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

US Rover Perseverance has converted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere of Mars into oxygen for the first time in history, according to NASA. 

This means NASA’s newest six-wheeled robot, currently on the martian surface, is capable of converting some of the Red Planet’s thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen. 

The experiment was accomplished through an instrument called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment (MOXIE), which is the size of a toaster.

The test was conducted on April 20, “the 60th Martian day, or sol, since the mission landed Feb. 18,” NASA said in a statement on Wednesday. 

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said the latest technology could be used in the future to provide astronauts and rockets with oxygen on the Red Planet.

“MOXIE is an exploration technology investigation – as is the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyser (MEDA) weather station – and is sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate,” it added. 

This could help with isolating and storing oxygen on Mars to support power rockets that could lift astronauts off the planet’s surface. It may also provide breathable air for astronauts in space. 

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for STMD. 

“MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home,” he emphasised.

Having access to oxygen on the Red Planet is a game-changer for rockets and astronauts, said MOXIE’s principal investigator, Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory.

“To burn its fuel, a rocket must have more oxygen by weight. Getting four astronauts off the Martian surface on a future mission would require approximately 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen. In contrast, astronauts living and working on Mars would require far less oxygen to breathe,” the report added.

“The astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use one metric ton between them,” Hecht said.

To carry 25 metric tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars would be an enormous challenge, according to NASA. 

“Transporting a one-ton oxygen converter – a larger, more powerful descendant of MOXIE that could produce those 25 tons – would be far more economical and practical. Mars’ atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide. MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. A waste product, carbon monoxide, is emitted into the Martian atmosphere,” NASA explained. 

The process in which MOXIE converts carbon to oxygen demands high levels of heat to reach a temperature of approximately 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius). This means the technology is made with heat-tolerant materials. 

“These include 3D-printed nickel alloy parts, which heat and cool the gases flowing through it, and a lightweight aerogel that helps hold in the heat. A thin gold coating on the outside of MOXIE reflects infrared heat, keeping it from radiating outward and potentially damaging other parts of Perseverance.”

In this first operation, it produced about 5 grams of oxygen which is equivalent to around 10 minutes worth of breathable oxygen for an astronaut. However, it is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.

“This technology demonstration was designed to ensure the instrument survived the launch from Earth, a nearly seven-month journey through deep space, and touchdown with Perseverance on Feb. 18.”

The instrument is supposed to extract oxygen at least nine more times throughout a Martian year, which is equivalent to nearly two years on Earth.

“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within STMD. It’s the first technology of its kind that will make living off earth possible, “using elements of another world’s environment, also known as in-situ resource utilisation.

“It’s taking regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and putting it through a processing plant, making it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide – the bulk of the atmosphere – and converting it into oxygen,” she said. 

“This process allows us to convert these abundant materials into useable things: propellant, breathable air, or, combined with hydrogen, water.”


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