The Martian rover Perseverance sets a new record for oxygen production on the Red Planet

    a robot on wheels on mars

a robot on wheels on mars

GOLDEN, Colorado – Breathe easy: There’s good news from Mars.

Hidden inside NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is a device known as the MOXIE, short for Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. MOXIE is the first experiment to suck in the planet’s thin, carbon dioxide-laden air and turn that native resource into oxygen. The toaster-sized device, if built on a larger scale, could be used not only for astronaut shipments to Mars for breathing, but also for rocket fuel.

Earlier this month, the experiment reached a major milestone when researchers pushed MOXIE to a maximum production level of a factor of two higher than previously achieved.

Related: Perseverance rover: NASA’s car on Mars looking for signs of ancient life

Riskier ride

“We’ve had very good results,” said Michael Hecht, MOXIE principal investigator and associate director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Haystack Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts.

“This was the riskiest ride we’ve ever done,” Hecht told Space.com in an exclusive interview. “This could have gone wrong,” she said, and could have caused minor damage to the instrument, but it didn’t. The milestone Mars ride took place on June 6, operating during Martian night, and lasted 58 minutes, Hecht said.

The requirements for MOXIE were to produce 6 grams of oxygen per hour, a rate that was eventually doubled. “We rolled the dice a bit. It was ‘hold your breath and see what happens,'” said Hecht.

Informally dubbed “the last hurray” by Hecht and his team, MOXIE delivered the goods on its 15th run to Mars since absorbing the Martian atmosphere inside Jezero Crater on April 20, 2021.

The challenge from the outset, Hecht added, has been to figure out ways to operate on Mars more efficiently by producing a higher oxygen yield.

a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat indoors

a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat indoors

Voltage monitoring

Hecht presented a review of MOXIE, detailing a Martian year of on-site resource utilization on the Red Planet at the 23rd Space Resources Roundtable meeting, held June 6-9 at the Colorado School of Mines.

MOXIE weighs about 40 pounds (18 kg) and is designed to draw in Martian air using a pump before using an electrochemical process to separate an oxygen atom from each carbon dioxide molecule. As a byproduct, carbon monoxide is produced, as well as a solid carbon black residue that can clog the works inside the device, Hecht said. So voltage vigilance is needed while MOXIE does its job of producing high-temperature oxygen, he added.

a golden metal cube is lifted by a person in a clean white suit in a workshop

a golden metal cube is lifted by a person in a clean white suit in a workshop

Operating one hour at a time, MOXIE ran seven times in the 2021 calendar year, primarily to demonstrate that the instrument can operate under the diverse conditions the planet experiences throughout the Martian year. (A year on Mars is twice as long as on Earth due to the red planet’s complete oscillation around the sun.)

In 2022, MOXIE engineers have focused more on pushing the capabilities of the unit, as well as developing new modes of operation. All told, the previous set of 14 start-stop runs added up to 1,000 minutes of run time. “It’s been an exciting journey,” Hecht told the Colorado School of Mines audience.

But MOXIE is a technology demonstration, and like many other demonstrators, its long-term life is tied to funding. The research money for MOXIE will run out at the end of the year, Hecht said, with the MIT lab doing the work looking for new collaborations.

technicians in white coveralls lower a metal box into a larger metal box

technicians in white coveralls lower a metal box into a larger metal box

Full size system

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As for MOXIE’s future, Hecht said the experiment results encourage the development of a full-scale system here on Earth, one that continuously emits oxygen in an automatic mode and is capable of generating 25 to 30 tons of oxygen to support a human being. mission to Mars. “It’s all about living. We run one hour at a time. To do this in the future we’ll have to run 10,000 hours.”

Understanding how far MOXIE can be pushed before it degrades is important. “On Mars, you don’t get a second chance,” Hecht told Space.com. “We could fire it up at 12 grams per hour and let it rip for a long time.”

Maybe it makes sense to come back in a year, Hecht noted, to fire up the experiment again to see if anything has degraded just from aging and exposure to the Martian environment.

“MOXIE is going nowhere to be safe and comfortable on Mars,” Hecht said.

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