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‘Historical’ box on Mars producing oxygen at the rate of a tree

'Historical' box on Mars producing oxygen at the rate of a tree
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When NASA’s robotic Perseverance rover took off for Mars last year, it brought with it a small, golden box called MOXIE for the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment.

Since then, MOXIE has been making oxygen out of thin Martian air.

And on Wednesday, the team behind this contraption confirmed in the journal Science Advances that MOXIE works so well that its oxygen output is comparable to that of a humble earth tree.

By the end of 2021, extensive data showed that MOXIE successfully achieved its oxygen target performance of six grams per hour in seven separate experimental runs and under different atmospheric conditions. This includes day and night, different seasons on Mars, and other such things.

“The only thing we haven’t demonstrated is running at dawn or dusk, when the temperature changes significantly,” says Michael Hecht, principal investigator on the MOXIE mission at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory. it says in a press release. “We’ve got an ace up our sleeve that lets us do that, and once we’ve tested that in the lab, we can hit that final milestone to show that we really can walk anytime.”

A schematic showing where Moxie is located on NASA's Mars Rover.  The rover has six wheels in total, three on each side, and Moxie is on the far right side of the picture.

Here is MOXIE on the Mars rover.

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For scientists and space agencies alike, it’s particularly exciting that MOXIE’s promise holds up, as proposed timelines for astronaut-laden Mars expeditions face looming deadlines to learn how to protect future red planet space explorers.

For example, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s goal of landing humans on Mars appears to be 2029, and NASA’s forthcoming Artemis I lunar mission should pave the way for excursions to Mars planned for the 2030s or 2040s. “To support a manned mission to Mars, we have to bring a lot of stuff from Earth, like computers, space suits and habitats,” Jeffrey Hoffman, MOXIE’s associate principal investigator and a professor at MIT, said in a press release. “But stupid old oxygen? If you can make it there, do it – you’re way ahead of the game.”

By the looks of it, MOXIE is super small (it’s basically the size of a toaster oven), but that’s potentially a good thing. That means that if scientists manage to somehow increase the size of the patterned cube, MOXIE could produce far more than just six grams of oxygen per hour.

“We learned an enormous amount that will inform future systems on a larger scale,” said Hecht.

Perhaps, the researchers say, it could one day eventually produce oxygen in quantities equal to several hundred trees, supplying astronauts once they arrive on Mars and fueling rockets that need the life-giving element to bring crews back to Earth .

“Astronauts spending a year on the surface will use maybe a ton together,” Hecht said in a NASA press release last year. Leg, per space agencyGetting four astronauts off the surface of Mars on a future mission would require about 15,000 pounds (7 tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 tons) of oxygen. Getting all that oxygen from Earth would be very costly and inefficient.

So, as Hoffman says, why not just make all the oxygen on the dry planet yourself?

How does MOXIE work?

On Mars, MOXIE actively converts carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere — where the element makes up a whopping 96% — into breathable oxygen.

A little chemistry 101 is that carbon dioxide molecules are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. These bits are basically glued together. But a tool within MOXIE, called the Solid Oxide Electrolyzer, can sort of harvest the oxygen bits in those CO2 molecules that scientists are interested in. Upon completion, any free-floating oxygen particles are recombined into O2, aka molecules with two oxygen atoms, also known as the type of oxygen we know and love.

I know it’s different, but I keep thinking about Pixar’s WALL-E doing it. So, as WALL-E would say: Ta-da!

In a lab that looks like a clean room, we can see the gold, patterned Moxie mechanism attached to wires and other metal fixtures that hold it up.

Technicians from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lower the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the Perseverance rover’s belly.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

“This is the first demonstration of the actual use of resources on the surface of another planetary body and their chemical conversion into something that would be useful for a human mission,” Hoffman said. “It’s historical in that sense.”

On the go, this process requires the use of extremely high heat – temperatures of around 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius) are reached – which intriguingly gives MOXIE its signature gold plating.

Like NASA’s groundbreaking James Webb Space Telescope, MOXIE must be protected from infrared heat because it uses heat itself. A gold plating does just that, and in fact the mirrors on the JWST are also gold plated for exactly that reason.

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A wing of the James Webb Space Telescope’s main mirror opens during a final test of the mirror delivery system in May 2021. Check out this gilded beauty.

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Next, the MOXIE team intends to demonstrate that MOXIE works well under even more intense conditions, such as: B. at a next run, which will take place during the “highest density of the year,” said Hecht. “We will take everything as high as we dare and let it go as long as we can.”

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