NASA has produced oxygen on the surface of Mars for the first time

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Perseverance rover

The MOXIE experiment was carried to Mars by NASA’s Perseverance rover

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A NASA experiment on Mars has turned some of the Red Planet’s tenuous, toxic atmosphere into oxygen. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) landed on Mars with the Perseverance rover on 18 February and has now completed its first test.

The atmosphere on Mars is mostly made of carbon dioxide. It is also 100 times thinner than Earth’s atmosphere, so even if it did have a similar composition to the air here, humans would be unable to breathe it to survive. If we ever send astronauts to explore Mars, they will have to bring their own oxygen with them.

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Oxygen is also a crucial ingredient in most rocket fuels, so if those astronauts want to come back home, they will have to carry heavy tanks of fuel with them on their entire journey. NASA estimates that to get four astronauts home from Mars would take about 25 tonnes of oxygen. It is extraordinarily expensive to carry anything to Mars and rockets have limited capacity, so every gram counts.

MOXIE is a step towards solving both of those problems by producing oxygen on Mars. It sucks in carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and heats it to temperatures around 800°C, allowing it to strip oxygen atoms from the carbon dioxide and then vent out carbon monoxide.

The experiment’s first test, which took place on 20 April, produced about 5 grams of oxygen, which is equivalent to about 10 minutes of breathable air for an astronaut. “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,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter in a statement.

MOXIE is only capable of producing about 10 grams of oxygen per hour, but future oxygen generators could be much larger and rip oxygen atoms off carbon dioxide far faster. Over the next year, MOXIE is expected to run at least nine more experiments, testing its capabilities during different times of day and seasons, when conditions in the Martian atmosphere change.

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