Milestones on Mars: NASA rover generates oxygen for the first time

22 Apr 2021

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover taking a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA has reported two historic firsts on Mars this week, with the Ingenuity helicopter’s first flight and the Perseverance rover successfully generating oxygen.

While NASA’s Crew-2 astronaut launch with SpaceX has been postponed until tomorrow (23 April) due to weather conditions, the space agency has been kept busy this week with activity on Mars.

In two historic firsts for space exploration, its Ingenuity helicopter took its first flight on the Red Planet earlier this week and now the Perseverance rover has successfully generated oxygen for the first time.

A toaster-sized, experimental instrument aboard Perseverance, which touched down on the surface of Mars in February, has generated oxygen from Mars’ thin, carbon dioxide-dominated atmosphere.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) completed the test on Tuesday (20 April) in a significant milestone for Mars exploration. It showed that technology has the potential to help astronauts breathe on the planet and propel the rockets that would carry them back to Earth.

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter. “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.”

MOXIE produced 5.4g of oxygen over the course of an hour, which NASA said would be enough to keep an astronaut breathing for 10 minutes. The instrument is designed to produce up to 10g per hour and NASA will keep testing this throughout the next Mars year – the equivalent of 687 days on Earth.

A small gold box is being lowered into a NASA rover in a lab setting.

MOXIE being installed into the Perseverance rover. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Meanwhile, the second flight of the Ingenuity helicopter is scheduled for today (22 April).

Ingenuity, which was carried to the Red Planet in the Perseverance rover, had it first flight on Monday (19 April) in a test that lasted around 40 seconds. To keep itself hovering above the planet’s surface for 30 seconds of that time, Ingenuity had to spin its blades at around 2,400 revolutions per minute.

Perseverance will keep watch over the helicopter for another month before it focuses on its main geological and astrobiological missions, which include searching for signs of ancient microbial life and collecting Mars samples that can be returned to Earth for research.

Lisa Ardill was careers editor at Silicon Republic until June 2021