Whenever the first astronauts land on Mars, they may have to thank a microwave-oven-sized device for the air they breathe.
That’s because a small, golden cube aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover has produced enough oxygen on the Red Planet to keep a human alive, at least for a while.
In total, the MOXIE instrument has made 122 grams of oxygen since it landed on Mars in 2021 – enough to support an astronaut for about three hours and 40 minutes.
Experts think future versions of the tool sent to Mars could stockpile oxygen to help keep future astronauts alive or make fuel to get them home.
Perseverance and its many instruments (including MOXIE) landed on Mars in February 2021 following a nearly seven-month journey through space.
MOXIE, a small, gold box-shaped instrument on Perseverance, uses electrolysis technology to generate oxygen
The six-wheeled rover is on Mars to search for signs of ancient life, look for water and gather samples of Martian soil and rock to one day return to the Earth
MOXIE: How it works
The oxygen production process starts with carbon dioxide intake.
Inside MOXIE, the Martian CO2 is compressed and filtered to remove any contaminants. It is then heated, which causes separation into oxygen and carbon monoxide.
The oxygen is further isolated by a hot, charged ceramic component. The oxygen ions merge into O2.
Carbon monoxide is expelled harmlessly back into the atmosphere.
As of September 2023, MOXIE has made 122 grams of oxygen since 2021 – enough to support an astronaut for about 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 back in April 2021, and has now extracted oxygen from the Martian atmosphere a total of 16 times.
The instrument makes molecular oxygen through a clever process that separates one oxygen atom from each molecule of carbon dioxide pumped in from the thin Martian atmosphere.
As these gases flow through the system, they’re analysed to check the purity and quantity of the oxygen produced.
At its most efficient, MOXIE has been able to produce 12 grams of oxygen an hour at 98 per cent purity or better, NASA said.
The modest golden cube has proved more successful than its creators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) expected, according to the space agency.
Nevertheless, MOXIE has fulfilled its duty and its operations are now ending, although parent rover Perseverance will keep going and currently has no scheduled end date.
‘MOXIE’s impressive performance shows that it is feasible to extract oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere – oxygen that could help supply breathable air or rocket propellant to future astronauts,’ said NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy.
‘Developing technologies that let us use resources on the moon and Mars is critical to build a long-term lunar presence, create a robust lunar economy, and allow us to support an initial human exploration campaign to Mars.’
The important work by MOXIE (which travelled to Mars on the rover called Perseverance) raises hopes for future colonies on the Red Planet (pictured)
A full scale test model of the Perseverance rover currently on Mars is displayed during a press conference for the Mars Sample Return mission in the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California on April 11, 2023
MOXIE was built with heat-resistant materials like nickel alloy and designed to tolerate the searing temperatures of 1,470°F (800°C) required for it to run.
A thin gold coating ensures it doesn’t radiate its heat and harm the rover and future versions could be much larger, able to power a rocket launch.
Now MOXIE’s mission has finished, scientists want to build a system that has an oxygen generator like MOXIE, but also a device that can liquefy, store and stockpile that oxygen.
Not only would having oxygen on Mars allow future astronauts to breathe, but it could make hauling vast amounts of oxygen over from Earth to use as rocket propellant for the return journey unnecessary.
Such a follow-up to MOXIE could be part of NASA’s Artemis programme, which is preparing manned missions to the moon but also laying the groundwork for missions to Mars.
The US space agency will send humans back to the lunar surface in 2025, although its manned missions to the Red Planet won’t take place until the 2030s.
Meanwhile, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk thinks he can beat NASA to it by sending crewed flights to Mars as soon as the second half of this decade.
‘This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,’ said NASA’s Jim Reuter, adding it will make future human missions more viable. Stock Image
Perseverance is the heaviest payload yet to go to the Red Planet – at a car-sized 2,259 pounds (1,025kg).
The Mars rover is tasked with seeking traces of fossilised microbial life from Mars’ ancient past and gathering rock specimens for return to Earth.
However, Perseverance is not bringing the samples back to Earth – the rover is stashing in certain locations on Mars them to be collected by a future retrieval mission, which is currently being developed.
As well as MOXIE, the rover carried a small helicopter called Ingenuity to Mars, which performed the first powered flight on another planet, as well as more than 50 successive flights.
Hard at work: NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter are searching for life on the Red Planet
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was launched to search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth in the earliest years of the evolution of the solar system.
Named Perseverance, the main car-sized rover is exploring an ancient river delta within the Jezero Crater, which was once filled with a 1,600ft deep lake.
It is believed that the region hosted microbial life some 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago and the rover will examine soil samples to hunt for evidence of the life.
Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover (artist’s impression) is searching for signs of ancient life on Mars in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet
The $2.5 billion (£1.95 billion) Mars 2020 spaceship launched on July 30 with the rover and helicopter inside – and landed successfully on February 18, 2021.
Perseverance landed inside 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, perhaps by the later 2020s in partnership with the European Space Agency.
This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the red planet via NASA’s ‘sky-crane’ system