Day and evening, and throughout seasons, the instrument generates breathable oxygen from the Purple Planet’s skinny environment — ScienceDaily


On the pink and dusty floor of Mars, almost 100 million miles from Earth, an instrument the dimensions of a lunchbox is proving it could reliably do the work of a small tree.

The MIT-led Mars Oxygen In-Situ Useful resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, has been efficiently making oxygen from the Purple Planet’s carbon-dioxide-rich environment since February 2021, when it touched down on the Martian floor as a part of NASA’s Perseverance rover mission.

In a research revealed within the journal Science Advances, researchers report that, by the top of 2021, MOXIE was in a position to produce oxygen on seven experimental runs, in quite a lot of atmospheric situations, together with throughout the day and evening, and thru totally different Martian seasons. In every run, the instrument reached its goal of manufacturing six grams of oxygen per hour — concerning the fee of a modest tree on Earth.

Researchers envision {that a} scaled-up model of MOXIE might be despatched to Mars forward of a human mission, to repeatedly produce oxygen on the fee of a number of hundred timber. At that capability, the system ought to generate sufficient oxygen to each maintain people as soon as they arrive, and gas a rocket for returning astronauts again to Earth.

Thus far, MOXIE’s regular output is a promising first step towards that objective.

“We now have realized an amazing quantity that may inform future techniques at a bigger scale,” says Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE mission at MIT’s Haystack Observatory.

MOXIE’s oxygen manufacturing on Mars additionally represents the primary demonstration of “in-situ useful resource utilization,” which is the thought of harvesting and utilizing a planet’s supplies (on this case, carbon dioxide on Mars) to make sources (equivalent to oxygen) that may in any other case need to be transported from Earth.

“That is the primary demonstration of really utilizing sources on the floor of one other planetary physique, and remodeling them chemically into one thing that may be helpful for a human mission,” says MOXIE deputy principal investigator Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of the follow in MIT’s Division of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “It is historic in that sense.”

Hoffman and Hecht’s MIT co-authors embrace MOXIE crew members Jason SooHoo, Andrew Liu, Eric Hinterman, Maya Nasr, Shravan Hariharan, and Kyle Horn, together with collaborators from a number of establishments together with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which managed MOXIE’s growth, flight software program, packaging, and testing previous to launch.

Seasonal air

The present model of MOXIE is small by design, so as to match aboard the Perseverance rover, and is constructed to run for brief durations, beginning up and shutting down with every run, relying on the rover’s exploration schedule and mission duties. In distinction, a full-scale oxygen manufacturing facility would come with bigger items that may ideally run repeatedly.

Regardless of the required compromises in MOXIE’s present design, the instrument has proven it could reliably and effectively convert Mars’ environment into pure oxygen. It does so by first drawing the Martian air in by way of a filter that cleans it of contaminants. The air is then pressurized, and despatched by way of the Strong OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE), an instrument developed and constructed by OxEon Power, that electrochemically splits the carbon dioxide-rich air into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide.

The oxygen ions are then remoted and recombined to kind breathable, molecular oxygen, or O2, which MOXIE then measures for amount and purity earlier than releasing it harmlessly again into the air, together with carbon monoxide and different atmospheric gases.

Because the rover’s touchdown in February 2021, MOXIE engineers have began up the instrument seven instances all through the Martian yr, every time taking a couple of hours to heat up, then one other hour to make oxygen earlier than powering again down. Every run was scheduled for a special time of day or evening, and in numerous seasons, to see whether or not MOXIE might accommodate shifts within the planet’s atmospheric situations.

“The environment of Mars is way extra variable than Earth,” Hoffman notes. “The density of the air can range by an element of two by way of the yr, and the temperature can range by 100 levels. One goal is to indicate we are able to run in all seasons.”

Thus far, MOXIE has proven that it could make oxygen at nearly any time of the Martian day and yr.

“The one factor now we have not demonstrated is operating at daybreak or nightfall, when the temperature is altering considerably,” Hecht says. “We do have an ace up our sleeve that may allow us to try this, and as soon as we take a look at that within the lab, we are able to attain that final milestone to indicate we are able to actually run any time.”

Forward of the sport

As MOXIE continues to churn out oxygen on Mars, engineers plan to push its capability, and improve its manufacturing, significantly within the Martian spring, when atmospheric density and carbon dioxide ranges are excessive.

“The following run arising can be throughout the highest density of the yr, and we simply wish to make as a lot oxygen as we are able to,” Hecht says. “So we’ll set all the pieces as excessive as we dare, and let it run so long as we are able to.”

They may also monitor the system for indicators of damage and tear. As MOXIE is only one experiment amongst a number of aboard the Perseverance rover, it can not run repeatedly as a full-scale system would. As a substitute, the instrument should begin up and shut down with every run — a thermal stress that may degrade the system over time.

If MOXIE can function efficiently regardless of repeatedly turning on and off, this may recommend {that a} full-scale system, designed to run repeatedly, might accomplish that for hundreds of hours.

“To assist a human mission to Mars, now we have to deliver a whole lot of stuff from Earth, like computer systems, spacesuits, and habitats,” Hoffman says. “However dumb outdated oxygen? If you can also make it there, go for it — you are manner forward of the sport.”

This analysis was supported, partially, by NASA.

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