Breathable oxygen: Another landmark for Perseverance rover on Mars

In an amazing new experiment MOXIE device on the rover produced a tiny amount of oxygen on the Red planet

By Faisal Khan | 23 April 2021

SEArch+/Apis Cor concept. (Image Credit: NASA)

Earlier this week the newswires were flooded with the historical news of the “Wright Brothers moment” on Mars – the moment when NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter took off from the dusty red surface of Mars to complete the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. No doubt, a huge accomplishment for humanity, another impressive experiment that produced a tiny amount of oxygen is nothing less than a breakthrough.

The Perseverance rover, which landed in Jezero Crater on the Red planet on February 18 has now succeeded in both the key missions conducted so far. In the second experiment after the copter ride, a toaster-sized, experimental instrument aboard Perseverance called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) generated oxygen on another planet. The line between science fiction and science fact just got blurred.

This is indeed a big deal, considering these devices can not only produce breathable oxygen for future astronauts, but it would also provide a vital fuel source to power rockets off the surface of the red planet’s surface. If this process can be scaled up, it could save a lot of money, time, and complexity for future missions. Ironical though, that we are depleting atmospheric oxygen on our own planet but trying to produce it in a completely inhospitable environment.

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars. 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.

~ Jim Reuter, Associate Administrator STMD

Talking about the inhospitable environment, the Martian atmosphere consists of 96% carbon dioxide – Oxygen is only 0.13%, compared with 21% in Earth’s atmosphere. MOXIE worked by separating oxygen from carbon dioxide, leaving carbon monoxide as the waste product. According to the researchers, the process uses a technology called electrolysis that is very similar to a fuel cell – except that in a traditional fuel cell, oxygen and fuel are combined to get electrical energy.

Illustration of the MOXIE instrument, depicting the elements within the instrument – Credit: NASA/JPL

The whole experiment takes place in a high-temperature environment of about 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius). Heat tolerance was induced via 3D-printed nickel alloy components, along with an aerogel to trap the heat inside. MOXIE’s gold-plated shell protected the Perseverance rover from the heat during the inaugural test. After warming up for two hours, MOXIE was then able to produce up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.

One of the biggest challenges for the scientists was whether the device would work on the surface of Mars as well as it did in the controlled environment of the lab. Also, it was an open question, whether it would survive a months-long journey to the red planet. Seems it has overcome those hurdles with ease. Researchers would now be looking at developing a much larger version for further testing.

This initial demonstration was designed to figure out whether MOXIE had overcome the challenges mentioned above. Since it has been a success, it is expected to extract oxygen at least nine more times over the course of a Martian year (nearly two years on Earth). The production runs will be conducted in three phases – in which they will check out and characterize the instrument’s functions in varying atmospheric and different temperature conditions.

Stay tuned for what happens next.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Faisal Khan is a prolific Canada-based tech blogger and influencer. He is the founder and editor of the Technicity publication which focuses on technical, scientific and financial knowledge sharing. Follow him on Twitter @fklivestolearn.

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Nasa successfully flies small helicopter on Mars – BBC News

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