MOXIE experiment reliably produces oxygen on Mars

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Lunchbox-sized equipment is demonstrating its reliability in performing the tasks of a tiny tree on the red and dusty surface of Mars, over 100 million kilometers from Earth.

Since it landed on Mars in February 2021 as part of NASA's Perseverance rover mission, the MIT-led Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, has been successfully producing oxygen from the Red Planet's carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere.

Researchers say that by the end of 2021, MOXIE was able to manufacture oxygen on seven experimental runs, in various atmospheric circumstances, including day and night and across the Martian seasons, according to a paper published in the journal Science Advances. The gadget produced six grams of oxygen per hour on each run or approximately the same amount as a small tree on Earth.

According to researchers, a scaled-up MOXIE may be transported to Mars before a human trip to create oxygen continually at the pace of several hundred trees. At that capacity, the system should be able to produce enough oxygen to support people once they arrive as well as power a rocket for astronauts returning to Earth.

As of now, MOXIE's consistent production is a positive first step.

Michael Hecht, the MOXIE mission's chief investigator at MIT's Haystack Observatory, states, "We have learned a huge lot that will shape future systems at a bigger scale."

In addition, the oxygen produced by MOXIE on Mars is the first example of "in-situ resource utilization," which is the concept of using a planet's resources (in this case, carbon dioxide on Mars) to create resources (such as oxygen) that would otherwise need to be carried from Earth.

According to MOXIE deputy principal investigator Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of the practice in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, "This is the first demonstration of actually using resources on the surface of another planetary body, and transforming them chemically into something that would be useful for a human mission." "In that regard, it is historic."

The MOXIE team members Jason SooHoo, Andrew Liu, Eric Hinterman, Maya Nasr, Shravan Hariharan, and Kyle Horn are among the co-authors from MIT alongside Hoffman and Hecht. Other contributors come from various institutions, including NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversaw MOXIE's development, flight software, packaging, and testing before launch.

Seasonal air

The current MOXIE is constructed to run for brief times, starting up and shutting down with each run, depending on the rover's exploration schedule and mission tasks. It is compact by design to fit within the Perseverance rover. A complete oxygen factory, however, would include bigger units that ideally ran continually.

The Solid Oxide Electrolyzer (SOXE) is a device created and manufactured by OxEon Energy; the compressed air is divided into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide by electrochemical reactions. It draws in Martian air and passes through a filter to remove any impurities. MOXIE has demonstrated that, despite the inevitable trade-offs in its current architecture, it can reliably and effectively convert Mars' atmosphere into pure oxygen.

The oxygen ions are then separated and united again to create breathing molecular oxygen or O2. MOXIE then analyzes for amount and purity before harmlessly releasing it back into the atmosphere with carbon monoxide and other atmospheric gases.

MOXIE engineers have powered on the device seven times since the rover's arrival in February 2021. Each run was timed to test MOXIE's ability to adapt to changes in the planet's atmospheric conditions at various times of day or night and throughout the year. Each time, it took a few hours to warm up before producing oxygen for an hour before being powered off.

Hoffman observes that the atmosphere of Mars is far more erratic than that of Earth. "Throughout the year, the temperature can fluctuate by 100 degrees and the air density can vary by a factor of two. One goal is to demonstrate that we can run year-round."

MOXIE has demonstrated its ability to produce oxygen practically year-round on Mars.

Running during dawn or dusk, when the temperature changes significantly, is the only thing Hecht says they haven't tested. We have a trick under our sleeves that will enable us to achieve that, and after we test it in the lab, we can accomplish that last goal to demonstrate that we can run any time.

Ahead of the game

Engineers intend to enhance MOXIE's production capacity as it continues to produce oxygen on Mars, especially in the Martian spring when air density and carbon dioxide levels are high.

According to Hecht, the upcoming marathon will occur at the maximum density of the year, so we want to produce as much oxygen as possible. To run it as long as possible, we will set everything as high as we dare.

Additionally, they will keep an eye out for system wear and strain indicators. As one of several experiments on the Perseverance rover, MOXIE cannot operate continually as a real system would. Instead, the instrument must start up and shut down after every run, subjecting the system to thermal stress that might eventually cause it to fail.

If MOXIE can function properly while switching on and off frequently, a larger system intended to run constantly could do the same for thousands of hours.

"We have to transport a lot of gear from Earth, including computers, spacesuits, and housing, to enable a human voyage to Mars," Hoffman claims. "But dreadful old oxygen? Go for it if you can get there—you'll be miles ahead of the game."

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