Whenever the first astronauts land on Mars, they may have a microwave-sized device to thank for the air they breathe.
That’s because a small, golden cube aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover produced enough oxygen on the Red Planet to keep a human alive, at least for a while.
In total, the MOXIE instrument has produced 122 grams of oxygen since landing on Mars in 2021 – enough to sustain an astronaut for about three hours and 40 minutes.
Experts believe future versions of the device sent to Mars could collect oxygen to keep future astronauts alive or produce fuel to bring them home.
Perseverance and its many instruments (including MOXIE) landed on Mars in February 2021 after a nearly seven-month journey through space.
MOXIE, a small, gold, box-shaped instrument on Perseverance, uses electrolysis technology to produce oxygen
The six-wheeled rover is on Mars to search for signs of ancient life, search for water and collect samples of Martian soil and rock with the aim of one day returning to Earth
MOXIE: How it works
The oxygen production process begins with the absorption of carbon dioxide.
Inside MOXIE, the Martian CO2 is compressed and filtered to remove any impurities. It is then heated, which causes it to split into oxygen and carbon monoxide.
The oxygen is further isolated by a hot, charged ceramic component. The oxygen ions fuse to form O2.
Carbon monoxide is released harmlessly back into the atmosphere.
As of September 2023, MOXIE has produced 122 grams of oxygen since 2021 – enough to sustain an astronaut for approximately three hours and 40 minutes. (NASA says 5.4 grams is enough to keep an astronaut healthy for about 10 minutes of normal activity.)
MOXIE has fulfilled its duty and its operations are now ending, NASA announced in September.
MOXIE first produced oxygen in April 2021 and has now removed oxygen from the Martian atmosphere a total of 16 times.
The instrument creates molecular oxygen through a clever process that separates an oxygen atom from each carbon dioxide molecule pumped in from the thin Martian atmosphere.
As these gases flow through the system, they are analyzed to check the purity and quantity of oxygen produced.
At peak efficiency, MOXIE was capable of producing 12 grams of oxygen per hour with a purity of 98 percent or better, NASA said.
According to the space agency, the humble golden cube has proven more successful than its creators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) expected.
Nonetheless, MOXIE has fulfilled its duty and its operations are now ending, although the parent rover Perseverance will continue and currently has no planned end date.
“MOXIE’s impressive performance shows that it is possible to extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere – oxygen that could help provide breathing air or rocket fuel to future astronauts,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.
“Developing technologies that allow us to exploit resources on the Moon and Mars is critical to establishing a long-term lunar presence, creating a robust lunar economy, and supporting a first human exploration campaign to Mars.”
The important work of MOXIE (which traveled to Mars on the rover called Perseverance) raises hopes for future colonies on the Red Planet (pictured)
A complete test model of the Perseverance rover, currently on Mars, is shown during a press conference for the Mars Sample Return mission April 11, 2023, at the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California
Manufactured from heat-resistant materials such as nickel alloy, MOXIE is designed to withstand the scorching temperatures of 1,470°F (800°C) required for operation.
A thin gold coating ensures it doesn’t radiate its heat and harm the rover. Future versions could be much larger and capable of rocket launch.
After MOXIE’s mission is complete, scientists want to build a system that has an oxygen generator like MOXIE, but also a device that can liquefy, store and store that oxygen.
Oxygen on Mars would not only allow future astronauts to breathe, but would also eliminate the need to transport large amounts of oxygen from Earth to use as rocket fuel for the return flight.
Such a sequel to MOXIE could be part of NASA’s Artemis program, which prepares manned missions to the Moon but also lays the foundation for missions to Mars.
The US space agency will send humans to the lunar surface again in 2025, but its manned missions to the Red Planet will not take place until the 2030s.
Meanwhile, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk believes he can get ahead of NASA by sending manned flights to Mars as early as the second half of this decade.
“This is a critical first step in converting carbon dioxide into oxygen on Mars,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter, adding that it will make future human missions more feasible. Image from a photo agency
Perseverance is the heaviest payload yet flown to the Red Planet, weighing a car-sized 2,259 pounds (1,025 kg).
The Mars rover’s task is to search for traces of fossilized microbial life from Mars’ ancient past and to collect rock samples for return to Earth.
However, Perseverance isn’t bringing the samples back to Earth – the rover is storing them at specific locations on Mars to be collected by a future recovery mission currently being developed.
In addition to MOXIE, the rover carried to Mars a small helicopter called Ingenuity, which made the first powered flight on another planet as well as more than 50 consecutive flights.
Hard at work: NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter search for life on the Red Planet
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was launched to search for signs of ancient life on the red planet and to help scientists better understand how life on Earth evolved during the early years of the solar system’s evolution.
Dubbed Perseverance, the vehicle-sized main rover explores an ancient river delta in the Jezero Crater, which was once filled with a 1,600-foot-deep lake.
The region is thought to have harbored microbial life around 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago, and the rover will examine soil samples to look for evidence of life.
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover (artist’s rendering) searches for signs of ancient life on Mars to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet
The $2.5 billion (£1.95 billion) Mars 2020 spacecraft launched on July 30 with the rover and helicopter inside – and landed successfully on February 18, 2021.
Perseverance landed in the crater and will slowly collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth for further analysis.
A second mission will fly to the planet and return the samples, possibly by the late 2020s in collaboration with the European Space Agency.
This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the Red Planet using NASA’s Sky Crane system