NASA has logged another first on its latest mission to Mars: converting carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into pure, breathable oxygen
The unprecedented extraction of the oxygen, literally out of thin air on Mars, had been achieved on Tuesday by an experimental device aboard the NASA Perseverance rover, a six-wheeled science rover that had landed on the Red Planet on February the 18th after a seven-month journey from Earth.
In its first activation, the toaster-sized machine dubbed MOXIE, which stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, produced roughly around 5 grams of oxygen, which is equivalent to about 10 minutes’ worth of breathing for an astronaut, NASA has said.
Although the initial output of oxygen was modest, the feat has marked the first experimental extraction of any natural resources from the environment of another planet for the direct use by humans.
This comes after the Mars Ingenuity mini-helicopter took to the skies of the Red Planet, flying 10ft (three metres) in the air before then touching back down onto the planet’s surface, the space agency has said.
“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” Trudy Kortes, who is the director of technology demonstrations within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, had said in a statement. She said that it was the first technology of its kind to help future missions “live off the land” of another planet.
The machine works through electrolysis, which uses an extreme amount of heat to separate the oxygen atoms from the molecules of carbon dioxide, which accounts for around 95% of the Martian atmosphere.
The remaining 5% of the Martian atmosphere, which is only about 1% as dense Earth’s, consists primarily of molecules of nitrogen and argon. Oxygen only exists on Mars in negligible trace levels.
But an abundant supply of oxygen is considered critical to the eventual human exploration of the Red Planet, as both a sustainable source of breathable air for the astronauts, as well as a necessary ingredient for rocket fuel in order to fly them back to earth.
The volumes of oxygen that are required for launching rockets into space from the surface of Mars are particularly daunting.
According to NASA, getting four astronauts off of the Martian surface would require around 15,000 lbs (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel, which would need to be combined with 55,000 lbs (25 metric tons) of oxygen.
Transporting a one-ton oxygen-conversion machine to the surface of Mars is more practical than trying to haul 25 tons of pure oxygen in tanks over from Earth, Michael Hecht, MOXIE’s principal investigator, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said within NASA’s news release.
It’s a longstanding mystery of how Mars lost the water that had previously flowed on the planet’s surface billions of years ago. Scientists now think that they have an answer; that much of the water on Mars became trapped within the outer layer of the planet, which is its crust.
Astronauts living and working on the surface of the Red Planet would perhaps require one metric ton of oxygen between them in order to last an entire year, Hecht has said.
NASA said that MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams per hour as a proof of concept, and scientists have planned to run the machine at least a further nine times over the next two years under different speeds and conditions.
The first oxygen conversion run came following a day that NASA had achieved the historic first of having a controlled powered flight of an aircraft on another planet with a successful take-off and landing of a miniature helicopter on Mars.