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NASA made enough oxygen on Mars to last an astronaut for 100 minutes

NASA’s MOXIE experiment on Mars has produced about 100 minutes of breathable oxygen, raising hopes for future manned missions

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August 31, 2022

The MOXIE experiment landed on Mars with NASA’s Perseverance rover (artist’s impression)

NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s small experiment to produce oxygen on Mars managed to generate about 100 minutes of breathable oxygen by 2021. Now it will be scaled up to support future human exploration.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) is a small oxygen-generating device that landed on the Red Planet atop the Perseverance rover in February 2021.

Over the course of seven-hour production runs that year, MOXIE was able to reliably produce about 15 minutes of oxygen per hour in a variety of harsh planetary conditions. That worked out to a total of 50 grams of oxygen — about 100 minutes of breathing oxygen for a single astronaut.

“At the highest level, this is just a brilliant success,” says Michael Hecht at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Haystack Observatory, who is leading the MOXIE experiment.

Day and night, at various extreme temperatures and in the wake of a dust storm, Hecht says MOXIE continued to produce high-purity oxygen.

The NASA team is now looking for a larger version of the device, which would produce not only enough life support for a manned Mars mission, but also enough oxygen to propel a return rocket to Earth.

MOXIE requires pumps and compressors to draw carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, as well as heaters that can raise the air temperature to 800°C (1470°F).

The device then pulls the oxygen atoms from the carbon dioxide to produce oxygen gas, which MOXIE measured, before releasing it.

However, there will be some challenges in scaling this technology, says Gerard Sanders at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

These include the ability to insulate a larger version of MOXIE to control the internal temperature and ensure the unit heats up evenly to avoid breaking down.

Sanders also says that an oxygen device that can support a human mission would need to run continuously for about 400 days, and so far MOXIE’s runs have lasted just an hour.

“That’s a lot of hours working on the hardware, no matter what the technology is,” he says.

Nevertheless, MOXIE’s first year of success has been a big step forward in showing the potential of the technology, Sanders says.

NASA is now testing the necessary hardware at a scale relevant to a human mission. The larger version will probably be about a cubic meter in size, which shouldn’t be a problem for launches.

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