Oxygen on Mars: This MIT device can produce it like a tree

2 Sep 2022

Image: © elen31/Stock.adobe.com

In what is a breath of fresh air for scientists, the MIT-led MOXIE experiment was able to produce oxygen on Mars at the same rate as a modest tree on Earth.

While a human colony on Mars has always been an idea belonging to the realms of science fiction, we might have just taken one step closer.

A tiny device the size of a lunchbox has been pumping out oxygen into the carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere of Mars nearly 100m miles away from Earth. This signals the possibility of having enough oxygen someday to sustain visiting astronauts during their stay on the red planet.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment, better known as MOXIE, was developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It left planet Earth aboard the NASA Perseverance Mars rover more than two years ago.

MOXIE, a small, golden, cube-shaped device, is being worked on in a lab.

Technicians in the clean room lower the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In a study published this week in the journal Science Advances, MIT researchers reported that between touchdown in February 2021 and the end of the year, MOXIE was able to prove it could produce breathable oxygen from carbon dioxide in a variety of harsh conditions.

Across seven experiments, MOXIE converted the unbreathable Martian air into oxygen through a process known as solid oxide electrolysis. It did so at the rate of six grams per hour – which is about the same capacity as a modest tree on Earth – irrespective of the time of day or season.

The researchers say that a scaled-up version of MOXIE could make the dream of sustainable human exploration of Mars a reality by producing “tens of tonnes” of oxygen on site.

Apart from breathing, the oxygen could also be used to fuel a rocket to transport astronauts off the surface of Mars and back home, eliminating the need to pack and transport exorbitant amounts of the gas when leaving Earth.

“This is the first demonstration of actually using resources on the surface of another planetary body and transforming them chemically into something that would be useful for a human mission,” MOXIE deputy principal investigator Jeffrey Hoffman told MIT News. “It’s historic in that sense.”

Hoffman, an MIT professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, co-authored the study with other MIT researchers including Michael Hecht, Jason SooHoo, Andrew Liu, Eric Hinterman, Maya Nasr, Shravan Hariharan, Kyle Horn and Parker Steen.

The groundbreaking study, which was partly supported by NASA, also involved collaborators from multiple institutions including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which managed MOXIE’s development, flight software, packaging and testing prior to launch.

“To support a human mission to Mars, we have to bring a lot of stuff from Earth, like computers, spacesuits and habitats. But dumb old oxygen? If you can make it there, go for it – you’re way ahead of the game,” added Hoffman.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic