Skip to main content

NASA Mars experiment success brings crewed missions closer to reality

Technicians at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lower the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Perseverance rover, which arrived on Mars in February 2021, scored a first on Tuesday when it successfully converted some of the red planet’s thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen.

The achievement marks the first-ever production of oxygen on another planet and takes us a step closer to launching a crewed mission to Mars.

Perseverance performed the feat using its on-board Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment instrument, otherwise known as MOXIE.

The technology demonstration is important on two counts. First, it could offer a path to creating breathable air for future astronauts visiting Mars. And second, it provides engineers with useful data on how to isolate and store oxygen on the planet, a process essential for launching rockets off the Martian surface when it’s time for astronauts to return to Earth.

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars.”

Reuter added: “Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.”

A rocket has to have more oxygen by weight in order to burn its fuel. Lifting four astronauts off the Martian surface would need around 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and around 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen.

Oxygen is also vital for astronauts if they’re to live and work on the red planet, though much less will be needed than for a rocket — around one metric ton for four astronauts for an entire year, according to NASA.

Transporting 25 metric tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars would be an enormous challenge, while taking a one-ton oxygen converter — in other words a larger, more powerful version of toaster-sized MOXIE — would be an altogether more manageable endeavor, NASA said.

Making oxygen on the red planet

MOXIE is designed to separate oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which comprise one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. During the process, carbon monoxide is emitted into the Martian atmosphere as a waste product.

“The conversion process requires high levels of heat to reach a temperature of approximately 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius),” NASA explained. “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.”

MOXIE’s initial oxygen production process created about five grams — good for 10 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut — though the device can generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.

The technology demonstration was designed to prove that such a device can survive a six-month space trip and function properly on the Martian surface. MOXIE is expected to repeat the conversion process at least nine more times over the next two years, with each process performing different equipment tests in varying atmospheric conditions.

For more about MOXIE, check out this in-depth article on Digital Trends.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
Perseverance rover experiment produces record amount of oxygen on Mars
In this image, the gold-plated Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) Instrument shines after being installed inside the Perseverance rover.

Inside the belly of the Perseverance rover, currently exploring Mars's Jezero Crater, is a small box with a big job. The Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment or MOXIE aims to produce oxygen from Mars's abundant carbon dioxide, paving the way for providing resources for future crewed missions to the Red Planet.

In the summer of this year, MOXIE tested out its fastest production of oxygen to date, making more than 10 grams of oxygen per hour. The device works by taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using some electricity, and turning it into oxygen and carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide can be released and the oxygen kept -- making the system like a fuel cell run in reverse.

Read more
NASA’s Mars rover makes ‘one small drop for humankind’
The first Mars rock sample left at a collection site by NASA's Perseverance rover.

NASA has taken a significant step forward in getting Mars samples back to Earth after its Perseverance rover deposited its first rock-filled tube on the martian surface for possible collection by a later mission.

Perseverance, which has been gathering samples from Mars since arriving there in February 2021, deposited the sample on Wednesday, December 21.

Read more
NASA declares Mars InSight lander mission officially over
This illustration shows NASA's InSight spacecraft with its instruments deployed on the Martian surface.

Just over four years after reaching Mars, NASA has officially announced the end of its InSight lander mission.

The declaration came on Wednesday, December 21, after NASA failed to make contact with the lander across two consecutive attempts, leading the mission team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to conclude that InSight’s solar-powered batteries had run out of energy, a state referred to as “dead bus.”

Read more