In a groundbreaking achievement, NASA’s Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) Experiment (MOXIE) has demonstrated the feasibility of extracting breathable oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere. After a series of successful experiments, MOXIE is now poised to conclude its mission, leaving behind valuable insights for future Mars exploration.
MOXIE’s remarkable performance has paved the way for the potential extraction of oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere, a resource that could be crucial for sustaining human life and providing rocket propellant for future missions. NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy underscores the significance of this achievement in building a long-term lunar presence, fostering a robust lunar economy, and supporting human exploration campaigns to Mars.
Designed by MIT scientists, MOXIE has been in operation since NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars in February 2021. Over 16 runs, the experiment has successfully produced a total of 122 grams of oxygen. To put this into perspective, it’s enough to sustain a small dog for 10 hours or a human for 4 hours.
ELECTROLYSIS IN THE MARTIAN ATMOSPHERE
MOXIE operates using electrolysis, a process that breaks down carbon dioxide into its constituent atoms using an electrical current. Martian air is filtered and purified before undergoing this electrochemical process in the Solid Oxide Electrolyzer (SOXE). The result is the production of molecular oxygen (O2), essential for human survival. Each run takes a few hours, with MOXIE capable of producing up to 10 grams of breathable oxygen in an hour, roughly enough for 20 minutes of one astronaut’s breathing.
POTENTIAL FOR SELF-SUFFICIENCY
Even in the challenging conditions of Mars’ thin atmosphere, MOXIE has proven that oxygen extraction is feasible. In practical terms, such a device could complement other oxygen supplies, reducing the need to transport large amounts of cargo from Earth. Researchers, led by MIT physicist Michael Hecht, envision developing a full-scale system that includes an improved oxygen-extracting device, methods for liquefying the gas, and means for storage.
CHALLENGES AND FUTURE EXPLORATION
While MOXIE’s success is a significant step forward, numerous challenges lie ahead for human Mars exploration. The breathing requirements for astronauts and the demand for liquid propellant necessitate substantial oxygen resources, estimated at 500 metric tons. However, this achievement underscores the potential for future self-sufficiency on Mars, providing hope for a sustainable human presence on the red planet.
“We have to make decisions about which things need to be validated on Mars,” notes Michael Hecht. “I think there are many technologies on that list; I’m very pleased MOXIE was first.”