The Elements of Innovation Discovered

Mars MOXIE makes oxygen out of thin air

Metal Tech News - September 13, 2023

First-ever space habitat tech, experiment gives more than researchers expected.

Not too dissimilar from Man's first Moon landing with a computer that by today's standards TI-83 calculators could overpower, when the first astronauts land on Mars, they will most likely equivocate today's microwave oven-sized device for the air they breathe and the rocket propellant that gets them home as some clunky technology future generations will be amazed could accomplish what it did.

But for now, we can be amazed at what scientists have developed with MOXIE.

More of a mouthful, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, yet another clever acronym that doubly means the force of one's character, determination or nerve-Mars landers are going to need plenty of it if they are to touchdown on the Red Planet in the future and return home safely – a trip that would span nearly two years in the void of space.

Recently reported, MOXIE has generated oxygen for the 16th and final time aboard NASA's Perseverance rover – a device that proved far more successful than its creators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology expected, with its operations coming to a close.

"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."

Since its landing on Mars in 2021, the MOXIE module aboard Perseverance has generated a total of 122 grams of oxygen – about what a small dog may breathe in roughly 10 hours, according to NASA.

In its most efficient state, MOXIE could produce 12 grams of oxygen an hour, twice as much as the space agency's original goals for the device, at approximately 98% or better.

On its 16th run, on Aug. 7, the instrument made 9.8 grams of oxygen; while that is little more than 1.1% of what a person requires, this was a single device designed strictly for research purposes.

After completing all of its technical requirements, and through various conditions throughout a full Martian year, MOXIE allowed its designers to learn a great deal about the technology.

"We're proud to have supported a breakthrough technology like MOXIE that could turn local resources into useful products for future exploration missions," said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations, Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "By proving this technology in real-world conditions, we've come one step closer to a future in which astronauts' live off the land' on the Red Planet."

No sparks without oxygen

Playing with molecules, much like a rebreather does by absorbing carbon dioxide exhaled to recycled unused oxygen, MOXIE produces oxygen through an electrochemical process that separates one oxygen atom from each molecule of carbon dioxide pumped in from Mars' thin atmosphere.

As these gases flowed through the system, they were then analyzed to check the purity and quantity of the oxygen produced.

While many of Perseverance's experiments are presently addressing the mission's primary scientific goals, MOXIE was focused on future human exploration. This means it served as the first-ever demonstration of technology that humans could potentially use to survive on and leave the Red Planet.

Putting the obvious life-supporting reasons for providing air in an oxygen-less environment, this system could potentially help future missions in other ways, one of which is as a source of rocket fuel, which would be required in industrial quantities to launch astronauts back into space for their return home.

Long understood that establishing a foothold in space will require manufacturing from off-world, technologies to build colonies or bases on celestial bodies have been at the forefront of research to combat the high cost of transporting payloads out of Earth's atmosphere – a price that is upwards of US$1,500 per kilogram (2.2 pounds).

So, rather than the unlikely – and costly – attempt to send large quantities of oxygen with astronauts to Mars, future explorers could live off the land, using materials they would find on the planet's surface to survive.

This concept – called in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU – has evolved into a quickly growing area of research. To date, many tentative technologies have begun to explore ways to maximize on-site resource use, such as Moon construction with 3D printers or vacuum-death resistant microbes to create the materials needed out in the vast emptiness.

"MOXIE has clearly served as inspiration to the ISRU community," said the instrument's principal investigator, Michael Hecht of MIT. "It showed NASA is willing to invest in these kinds of future technologies. And it has been a flagship that has influenced the exciting industry of space resources."

Setting ablaze the Promethean flame, the success of oxygen from thin air is about as impactful as the discovery of water on Mars, the building blocks of life have taken shape, and a dream of Martian colonization is no longer one of science fiction.

For the researchers at MIT, the next step is not a MOXIE 2.0 – although the team has learned a lot about how to design a more efficient version – rather, they believe it would be more apt to scale up the technology into a full-scale system that includes an oxygen generator like MOXIE, then a way to liquefy and store that oxygen.

However, more than anything, the team would like to see other technologies get their turn on Mars.

"We have to make decisions about which things need to be validated on Mars," Hecht said. "I think there are many technologies on that list; I'm very pleased MOXIE was first."

 

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