A “historic” box on Mars makes oxygen at the speed of one tree

When NASA’s robotic probe shot toward Mars last year, it brought with it a small gold box called MOXIE to experiment with using the oxygen sources from the site on Mars.

Since then, MOXIE has been producing oxygen from the thin air of Mars.

And Wednesday in Science Advances, the team behind this strange tool confirmed that MOXIE works so well that its oxygen production is comparable to the tree’s modest production rate on Earth.

By the end of 2021, extensive data showed that MOXIE had successfully achieved its target oxygen output of six grams per hour during seven separate experimental cycles and in various weather conditions. This includes day and night, the different seasons of Mars and the like.

“The only thing we haven’t shown is running at dawn or dusk, when the temperature changes dramatically,” said Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE mission at MIT’s Haystack Observatory. He said in a press release: “We really have what it takes to do that, and once we’ve tested that in the lab, we’ll be able to reach this final milestone to show that we can really run anytime.”

Diagram showing where Moxie is on NASA's Mars rover. There are six wheels in the rover, three on each side, and Moxy on the far right to the right of the photo.

This is where MOXIE is located on the Mars rover.


For scientists and space agencies alike, it’s especially exciting that MOXIE’s promise is strong, as proposed timelines for astronaut-laden Mars missions loom to learn how to keep space explorers on the Red Planet safe in the future.

For example, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s goal of landing humans on Mars appears to be 2029, and NASA’s. Upcoming Artemis I Moon Mission It is intended to pave the way for Mars flights planned in the 1930s or 1940s. “To support a human mission to Mars, we need to bring a lot of things from Earth, such as computers, spacesuits, and habitats,” Jeffrey Hoffman, deputy principal investigator at MOXIE and a professor at MIT, said in a press release. “But stupid old oxygen? If you can get there, go find it – you’re way ahead of the game.”

As it stands, MOXIE is quite small (in fact, the size of a toaster), but that’s probably a good thing. This means that if scientists can somehow increase the volume of the decorated cube, MOXIE could produce more than six grams of oxygen per hour.

“We have learned a tremendous amount that will guide future systems on a larger scale,” Hecht said.

Perhaps one day, the researchers say, it could eventually produce oxygen at the rate of several hundred trees, supporting astronauts once they reach Mars and fueling the rockets that need the element of life to take the crew back to Earth. to bring the earth.

“Astronauts who spend a year on the surface can use one ton between them,” Hecht said in a NASA press release last year. But, according to the space agency, getting four astronauts off the surface of Mars for a future mission would require about 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen. Getting all this oxygen from the Earth would be both prohibitively expensive and inefficient.

So, Hoffman says, why don’t we just produce all the oxygen on the arid planet itself?

How does MOXIE work?

On Mars, MOXIE actively converts carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere – where the element makes up no less than 96% – into breathable oxygen.

A bit of chemistry 101 is that carbon dioxide molecules are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. These little pieces are basically glued together. But a tool in MOXIE called a solid oxide electrolyser can collect the oxygen fragments in the carbon dioxide molecules scientists are interested in. Once complete, all the floating oxygen molecules recombine into O2, also known as two oxygen atoms, more commonly known as the type of oxygen we know and love.

I know it’s different, but I’m still thinking about Pixar’s WALL-E to do it. So, as wal-e says: Ta-da!

In what looks like a lab cleanroom, we can see Moxie's gold mechanism connected to the wires and other metal devices holding it up.

In what looks like a lab cleanroom, we can see Moxie's gold mechanism connected to the wires and other metal devices holding it up.

In what looks like a lab cleanroom, we can see Moxie's gold mechanism connected to the wires and other metal devices holding it up.

Engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lowered the Mars Oxygen Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the persistent rover’s stomach.


“This is the first demonstration of actually taking resources on the surface of another planetary body and chemically converting them into something that could be useful for a human mission,” Hoffman said. “In that sense, it’s historic.”

This process requires the use of super heat throughout – temperatures reach around 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius) – which gives MOXIE its signature gold coating.

As with NASA’s flagship James Webb Space Telescope, MOXIE must be protected from infrared heat because it works with the same heat. The gold plating does just that, and in fact JWST mirrors are gold plated for the exact reason too.




One of the main mirror wings of the James Webb Space Telescope opens during the final test of the mirror diffusion system in May 2021. Check out this gilded beauty.


Next, the MOXIE team wants to demonstrate that MOXIE performs well even under more intense conditions, such as the upcoming run that will take place during “the highest intensity of the year,” Hecht said. “We will set everything as high as we dare and keep it running for as long as possible.”

The article is in Dutch

Tags: historic box Mars oxygen speed tree

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