A toaster-sized rover is exploring a desolate crater just north of the equator on Mars, millions of miles away. The rover is carrying a gold-covered device the size of a toaster. The machine breathes in Mars’ atmosphere and filters out any potentially harmful particles.
It accomplishes this by disassembling atmospheric gas into its constituent parts, extracting what is needed, and then reassembling those components to produce oxygen, which is in extremely short supply on Mars. the kind of oxygen that can be breathed in, the kind that you’ve been taking in while reading these words
Following a brief analysis, the machine releases the oxygen into Mars’ atmosphere, where it does not disrupt the planet’s natural balance. As a result of this action, NASA’s Perseverance rover’s highly advanced toaster has become the object on Mars that most closely resembles a small tree.
The researchers who created the little machine think it’s a pretty good tree
The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE for short, has successfully converted Mars’ nearly entirely carbon dioxide-based atmosphere into oxygen gas every time it has been tested.
“We’re not far from being able to produce oxygen at the rate that would sustain a human being,” Michael Hecht, a planetary scientist at MIT’s Haystack Observatory who is leading the project, told me. “A small dog would be perfectly fine at our rate,” one customer said.
The MOXIE experiment is a masterful use of chemistry
Furthermore, it is a significant event in the history of human space exploration. If humans ever want to live on Mars for an extended period of time, they will need to learn to use the red planet’s natural resources rather than transporting everything they need from Earth.
“We have to be able to live off the land,” Jennifer Heldmann, a NASA scientist who works in the field of in situ resource utilization, told me. This is a field that is regarded as very futuristic. “This is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to test and demonstrate the technology required to do so.”
Furthermore, oxygen has a wide range of applications
It could not only keep people alive on a planet where their lungs were not designed, but it could also be combined with other compounds to produce rocket fuel, allowing people to return to Earth after exploring the alien world. We are the ones who are not from Mars. To even give future astronauts a chance to live there, let alone comfortably, we will need to develop a wide range of new technologies. We, as in humanity, have been able to figure out at least a portion of that mission by manipulating Mars’ atmosphere, which is almost science fiction to think about.
After the Perseverance rover touched down on Mars and began working toward its primary mission of collecting rocky samples that could contain the tiny imprints of long-dead Martian life. MOXIE had its work cut out for it in and of itself. When compared to Earth, Mars’ atmosphere is so thin that it is virtually indistinguishable from a vacuum. Hecht likes to think of the process as “creating oxygen out of thin air.” If you were from Mars, you might think of humans as fish swimming in a thick soup of atmosphere. If you visited Earth, you would think something like this.
Mars’ atmosphere undergoes far-reaching changes that are far more pronounced than those experienced by Earth. Temperatures can change by about 212 degrees Fahrenheit between day and night (100 degrees Celsius). The air changes density as the temperature changes, becoming less dense during warm days and denser during cool nights.
Seasonal changes in atmospheric pressure occur as well
The atmospheric pressure on Mars is lower because some of the atmosphere condenses into frost and settles over the poles during the Martian winter. The atmospheric pressure rises during the Martian summer. All of these factors influence the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is MOXIE’s primary food source.
Engineers tested the MOXIE instrument at various times of the day and throughout the four seasons to see how it performed under different conditions. “The most difficult time to collect carbon dioxide is in the middle of the day, in the middle of winter, when it is both warm and the pressure is low,” Hecht says. This is when they discovered it was the most difficult. “And the best time to do it is at night in the middle of summer, when the temperature is low and the pressure is high,” Nonetheless, the machine ran continuously, devoting one hour to the production of oxygen.
However, the crew has not yet tested MOXIE at dawn or dusk, when “the density of the air changes and the temperature changes rapidly,” according to Hecht. The engineers are concerned that the rapid change in carbon dioxide concentration caused by drawing in the gas will cause the instrument to malfunction.
Hecht says they’ll run some tests on Earth with a lab version of MOXIE first, but they’re confident they’ll be able to get their little lunch box to work regardless of the circumstances.
A group of scientists recently developed a method for producing oxygen from carbon dioxide with the help of plasma. Other groups of scientists are debating how to build oxygen factories in preparation for future Mars missions. Moreover, other researchers are seriously considering how to make use of additional resources on Mars, such as the ice deposits found just beneath the planet’s surface.
Future astronauts could extract water from the ice and purify it for use in their daily lives
They could also steal hydrogen molecules from the water and use that energy to power their journey back home. Julie Kleinhenz, a NASA research engineer who studies in situ resource utilization but is not involved in the MOXIE project, explained to me that methane, which can be used as a rocket propellant, can be produced. It is possible to completely refuel an ascent vehicle with methane and oxygen using only resources found on Mars and a series of relatively simple processes.
Certain critical items, such as spacesuits and toilets, must be transported from our current location. However, if you can manufacture something on Mars, you will be able to reduce the burden of heavy baggage, which makes launch from Earth more difficult.
The team behind MOXIE envisions a future in which an enlarged version, capable of performing the same tasks as hundreds of trees, would be humming away on the surface of Mars, working nonstop.
The oxygen-producing factory would begin operations prior to the arrival of humans on the space station, ensuring that sufficient supplies were available when the astronauts arrived. This future will not occur for a very long time; NASA estimates that the earliest astronauts will be able to land on Mars will be in the early 2040s. Even though Elon Musk, a space industry billionaire, wants to go to Mars much sooner than SpaceX, he will face the same constraints that would make a trip to Mars difficult (funding, physics, the cosmic radiation between here and there). A mega-sized MOXIE would be just one item among many on a very long packing list. MOXIE, on the other hand, has a concreteness that gives one a thrilling feeling even now. It’s information like this that makes a human settlement on Mars seem a little more plausible. Consider an engineer working at a console in the distant future while breathing in air derived from an alien atmosphere. “Hey, Steve, we’re getting some weird MOXIE readings—can you go check it out?” the engineer says to a member of her team.