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NASA’s rover is producing more oxygen on Mars than ever before

NASA’s rover is producing more oxygen on Mars than ever before

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from: Tanya Banner

NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter landed on Mars in February 2021. (File photo) © dpa/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A small instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover is producing oxygen on Mars in preparation for future human missions.

WASHINGTON, DC – In the future, the red planet Mars will be home to humans – Work is already underway on various fronts to realize this futuristic vision. The most obvious is the massive, reusable spacecraft that private space company SpaceX is currently testing, with long-term plans to colonize Mars.

In parallel, the US space agency NASA has been continuing its efforts to lay the foundations for future human exploration of Mars for some time.

An interesting focus of this core piece of research is related to the oxygen supply on Mars. Because this is very limited on the Red Planet – according to NASA, the oxygen content in the Martian atmosphere is only 0.13 percent compared to 21 percent on Earth. An adequate supply of oxygen not only plays a crucial role in the breathing of future astronauts on Mars, but is also important for spacecraft propulsion.

A future human mission to Mars will need a lot of oxygen

“To support a human mission to Mars, we need to bring in a lot of things from Earth—computers, spacesuits, and shelters. But oxygen? If you produce it there, you’re ahead of the game,” explains Jeff Hoffman, who works at NASA on the Mars instrument “Moxie.” It’s an instrument aboard the Mars rover that is testing oxygen production on Mars. Perseverance recently discovered a doughnut-shaped rock on Mars.

The Mars Oxygenation In Situ Experiment, also known as Moxie, harvests oxygen from Mars’ thin atmosphere. On April 20, 2021, this pilot experiment was successfully implemented for the first time. The device, about the size of a toaster, was capable of producing about five grams of oxygen — an amount an astronaut would use up in about ten minutes. During 2021, the device has been operated seven times and has been able to prove its ability to adapt to different conditions on Mars.

NASA rover uses “Moxie” instrument to produce oxygen on Mars

Since then, the researchers supervising “Moxie” have shown a greater willingness to take risks. high The machine now produces oxygen for about 1,000 minutes. Gateway senior scientist Michael Hecht of MIT calls it “an exciting ride.” During the month of June, “Moxie” set a new record: the small instrument aboard the Martian rover “Perseverance” produced twice as much oxygen as it had previously produced. “We got great results,” Hecht says happily, but he also emphasizes: “This was the riskiest we’ve ever done. It could have gone wrong.”

More specifically, “Moxie” was activated for 58 minutes on June 6, 2023, producing 12 grams of oxygen per hour, according to Hecht. Originally, the technology demonstration was intended to extract six grams of oxygen per hour on Mars. “We rolled the dice for a bit, and then we held our breath and saw what happened,” the researcher recalls.

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A human Mars crew needs 25 to 30 tons of oxygen

The amounts of oxygen produced by “Moxie” on Mars, of course, are far from sufficient for a human crew. NASA calculated that a small human crew would need about 25 to 30 tons of oxygen to launch from Mars. There are currently no concrete plans to develop a larger “Moxie” tool, but speculation is already underway. There are already considerations: A favorable time window for a Mars launch opens about every 26 months. Ideally, everything the crew needs would be available on the Red Planet before launch. This means that a larger “Moxie” instrument must be sent to Mars before the crew can use the launch window.

To produce enough oxygen for the entire stay of a human crew on Mars would require a large “Moxie” instrument to produce between 2,000 and 3,000 grams of oxygen per hour continuously, day and night, without interruption for 20 months. Therefore, the instrument must be delivered to Mars as close to the launch window as possible before the arrival of the human crew, and then operate continuously during those 20 months. The US space agency estimates that such a large device, capable of producing enough oxygen, would be the size of a small refrigerator and weigh about a ton. But it will likely be a significant number of years before humans actually set foot on Mars.

Machine assistance was used in this editorial article. The article was carefully screened by editor Tanya Banner before it was published.