NASA Instrument to Extract Oxygen from Martian Atmosphere

Mars Perseverance's MOXIE instrument is a golden box that'll pave the way for human explorers.
Chris Young

Having safely touched down on Mars on Feb. 18, NASA's newest rover mission, Perseverance, is only just getting started.

The red planet exploration mission will soon deploy a small instrument known as the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). 

As a LiveScience article explains, MOXIE, a bread box-sized gold-colored machine, will soon be extracting oxygen out of Mars' poisonous atmosphere.

Currently, the device is stowed inside Perseverance's chassis. Once deployed, it will be the first machine in history to perform what is known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) on another planet — a process that uses local resources for exploration instead of bringing materials from Earth.

MOXIE will take in a small sample of the Martian atmosphere, which is almost entirely composed of carbon dioxide, a molecule composed of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms.

The instrument will then heat the air up to almost 800 degrees Celsius (1500 degrees Fahrenheit) before applying a voltage. This should split the carbon dioxide apart, producing carbon monoxide and a single oxygen atom.

Paving the way for future human Mars missions

MOXIE, which is 200 times smaller than a similar machine planned for future human missions, will release trace amounts of oxygen back into the atmosphere.

Researchers back on Earth will analyze the machine's oxygen production capabilities across throughout the Martian year to ensure it can work year-round and in a number of conditions.

NASA Instrument to Extract Oxygen from Martian Atmosphere
An artist's impression of the Mars Perseverance rover. Source: NASA

Aside from producing oxygen for future Mars habitats, MOXIE could also play a large role in producing rocket propellants. When combined with hydrogen, oxygen combusts in a powerful explosion that is used for many of today's rocket launches.

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, according to NASA.

Though MOXIE's deployment has yet to be assigned a specific date, it is expected to start working in the early months of the Perseverance mission. It is just one example of a number of Perseverance experiments that are paving the way for human exploration of Mars.

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