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NASA’s MOXIE triumph

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NASA’s MOXIE triumph

The first people on Mars

The artist’s concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. NASA’s Perseverance rover uses a number of technologies that could make Mars safer and easier for humans to explore. One of them is MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), a device that successfully generated oxygen on Mars. Source: NASA

While traveling with the Perseverance rover, the instrument proved to be a viable technology for astronauts Mars to produce oxygen for fuel and respiration.

When the first astronauts land on Mars, perhaps the descendants of the microwave-sized device will be grateful for the air they breathe and the rocket fuel that will bring them home.

This device, called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), generated oxygen for the sixteenth and final time on board NASAPerseverance rover. After the instrument proved to be much more successful than its creators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MYTH) was expected, its activity is coming to an end.

“MOXIE’s impressive results show that it is possible to extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere – oxygen that could help provide future astronauts with breathing air or rocket fuel,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “Developing technologies that allow us to exploit the resources of the Moon and Mars is critical to building a long-term presence on the Moon, creating a robust lunar economy, and enabling us to support the initial human exploration campaign on Mars.”

MOXIE is the lowered landing gear of NASA's Mars Perseverance rover

MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-situ Resource Utilization Experiment) is lowered onto the landing gear of NASA Perseverance in 2019. During the MOXIE mission, it drew oxygen from the Martian atmosphere 16 times, testing how future astronauts could create rocket fuel that would enable them to launch back to Earth. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since Perseverance landed on Mars in 2021, MOXIE has generated a total of 122 grams of oxygen – about as much as a small dog breathes in 10 hours. At its peak performance, MOXIE was able to produce 12 grams of oxygen per hour – twice NASA’s original goals for the instrument – at a purity of 98% or higher.

During its 16th launch on August 7, the instrument produced 9.8 grams of oxygen. MOXIE successfully met all of its technical requirements and operated in a variety of conditions throughout the Martian year, allowing the instrument’s developers to learn a lot about the technology.

Innovative technology for future exploration

“We are proud to support breakthrough technology like MOXIE that can transform local resources into useful products for future exploration missions,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstration in the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. which funds the MOXIE demonstration. “By proving this technology in real-world conditions, we have moved one step closer to a future where astronauts ‘live off the land’ on the Red Planet.”

MOXIE produces molecular oxygen through an electrochemical process that separates one oxygen atom from every carbon dioxide molecule pumped from Mars’ thin atmosphere. These gases flowing through the system are analyzed to check the purity and amount of oxygen produced.

Pioneering use of Mars’ resources

While many Perseverance experiments address the mission’s primary science goals, MOXIE focused on future human exploration. Project MOXIE was the first-ever demonstration of technology that could enable humans to survive on and off the Red Planet. The oxygen-generating system could help future missions in a variety of ways, but the most important one would serve as a source of rocket fuel that would be needed in industrial quantities to launch rockets carrying astronauts on their way back home.

Instead of taking large amounts of oxygen with them to Mars, future astronauts could live off land, using materials found on the planet’s surface to survive. This concept – called in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) – has evolved into a growing area of ​​research.

“MOXIE has undoubtedly served as an inspiration to the ISRU community,” said the instrument’s principal investigator, Michael Hecht of MIT. “It showed that NASA is willing to invest in these kinds of future technologies. It was a flagship that made an impact on the exciting space resources industry.”

Artistic rendering of NASA's Perseverance rover

NASA’s Perseverance rover, shown in this artistic rendering, had a device called MOXIE on board. It successfully produced oxygen on Mars, paving the way for future astronauts to use the planet’s resources to survive and travel. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Future

The next step wouldn’t be to build MOXIE 2.0 – although Hecht and his team learned a lot about designing a more efficient version of the instrument. Rather, it would be to create a full-scale system that would include an oxygen generator such as MOXIE and a way to liquefy and store that oxygen.

But above all, Hecht would like to see other technologies used on Mars. “We need to make decisions about what elements need to be tested on Mars,” Hecht said. “I think there are a lot of technologies on that list; I’m so glad MOXIE was first.”

MOXIE Mars Oxygen ISRU experimental instrument for the Mars 2020 rover

The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) is a study of an exploration technology that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide. Source: NASA

More about the Mission

The key goal of the Perseverance mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for traces of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and store Martian rocks and regolith (crushed rock and dust).

Next NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send a spacecraft to Mars to retrieve these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon-to-Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed on behalf of the agency by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages the Perseverance rover.

JPL manages the MOXIE project for the Technology Demonstration Missions program within STMD. The MOXIE project was also supported by NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate and the Science Mission Directorate.

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