A NASA Perseverance rover has succeeded in making breathable oxygen on Mars, a key technology for the future exploration of the red planet. First tests show the instrument aboard the Perseverance rover has produced around five grams of oxygen, of more than 98% purity. For an astronaut this equates to around ten minutes worth of breathable oxygen.
So, how does it work?
The toaster sized instrument in the rover known as ‘MOXIE’, takes CO2 from the atmosphere of Mars (which is 96% carbon dioxide) and separates oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules. This is how the instrument produces oxygen. A waste product, carbon monoxide, is released into the Martian atmosphere.
The conversion process requires high levels of heat to reach a temperature of approximately 800° Celsius. To accommodate this, the MOXIE unit is made with heat-tolerant materials. These include 3D-printed nickel alloy parts, which heat and cool the gases flowing through it, and a lightweight aerogel that helps hold in the heat. A thin gold coating on the outside of MOXIE reflects infrared heat, keeping it from radiating outward and potentially damaging other parts of Perseverance.
“We are moving at pace towards getting the first human on Mars.” - Professor Tom Pike, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
For scientists at NASA, this crucial breakthrough gives a shimmer of hope that humans will soon be able to venture onto the red planet, to continue further exploration.
Their next step is to continue extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere over the course of two earth years. It is expected that this process will occur nine more times over this time period.