NASA Extracts Breathable Oxygen on Mars In Historic First

NASA achieved another first this week thanks to a small box attached to its Mars Perseverance rover.
Chris Young
NASA's Perseverance RoverNASA

NASA added to its ever-growing list of "firsts" this week by converting carbon dioxide extracted from Mars' atmosphere into pure, breathable oxygen, the US space agency said in a statement on Wednesday, April 22.

The achievement comes days after NASA conducted the first controlled flight on Mars, and constitutes another step in the agency's plans for future human exploration of the red planet in the 2030s.

The extraction of oxygen from Mars' carbon-rich atmosphere was carried out by a small experimental instrument, called MOXIE — the first device to ever extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.

Extracting oxygen for humans on future Mars missions

The toaster-sized MOXIE device is fixed to NASA's Mars Perseverance rover, which touched down on the red planet's Jezero Crater on February 18, after a seven-month journey from Earth.

Standing for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, MOXIE accomplished its first task on Tuesday, April 20. After its activation on Tuesday, the instrument produced approximately 5 grams of oxygen, which is enough for roughly 10 minutes of breathing time for an astronaut, NASA explained.

"This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars," said Jim Reuter, associate administrator STMD.

"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. Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe," he continued.

"Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home."

Breathable oxygen doubles up as rocket propellant

MOXIE uses the process of electrolysis to extract oxygen from Mars' thin atmosphere — the planet's atmospheric volume is less than 1 percent the equivalent of the Earth's atmosphere.

The instrument takes in a small sample of the carbon-rich Martian air, before heating it up to almost 800 degrees Celsius (1500 degrees Fahrenheit). It then applies a voltage, splitting the carbon dioxide apart and producing carbon monoxide and single oxygen atoms, which are collected separately.

Aside from producing oxygen for future Mars astronauts, MOXIE could also play a large role in producing rocket propellant — as oxygen combined with hydrogen combusts in a powerful explosion utilized by many of today's rocket launches.

Illustration of the MOXIE instrument, depicting the elements within the instrument.
A moving graphic of the MOXIE instrument, showing the elements within the instrument. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Prior to MOXIE's initial activation, NASA explained in a previous statement that, in order to return from Mars, a future human mission would need between 30,000 and 45,000 kilograms (66,000 and 100,000 pounds) of oxygen for rocket propellant.

As for astronauts living and working on Mars, they would likely require one metric ton of oxygen between them to last an entire year, NASA said. MOXIE was designed to generate up to 10 grams per hour as a proof of concept.

NASA plans to test the machine's capabilities at least another nine times at different stages of the Martian year to ensure it can work year-round and in a number of conditions.

Capping a historic week for space technology

A week full of space-related breakthroughs started off with NASA's successfully conducting the first powered, controlled flight on another planet with its Ingenuity helicopter.

The aircraft hitched a ride to the red planet alongside MOXIE and several other experimental instruments aboard the Mars Perseverance rover, whose primary mission is to search for fossilized traces of ancient life on the red planet.

Since that time, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has released enhanced footage of the historic flight, which was dubbed a Wright Brothers moment by JPL project manager Mimi Aun, shortly after the first images of the event were downloaded on Earth — the location of the Ingenuity flight was subsequently named the "Wright Brothers Field."

The new footage shows video from the Perseverance rover's Mastcam-Z imager (above), enhanced to show dust plumes propelled off the surface of Mars by the power of Ingenuity's 2,500 RPM custom rotors.

Following another historic first with the MOXIE experiment's activation on Tuesday, April 20, the US space agency aims to fly further on its second test flight of Ingenuity today, April 22.

Weather permitting, the week will be capped off by SpaceX and NASA's third launch of humans to the ISS on a Crew Dragon capsule — the second fully operational mission. SpaceX aims to eventually take humans to Mars. The private space enterprise recently won a partnership with NASA to help humans land on the moon by 2024.

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