Perseverance generates oxygen, a first for science

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The Perseverance rover has made history once again by successfully producing a small amount of oxygen on the planet Mars. This new feat could pave the way for larger devices capable of supporting a human presence on the Red Planet.

Produce oxygen on Mars

On Mars, all eyes have been turning for days on Ingenuity, the first vehicle to achieve powered flight on another planet. Nevertheless, let us not forget Perseverance, placed at a good distance to document the exploits of his companion. If the rover’s main mission is to probe for evidence of past life on Mars, the engineers have also placed in its luggage a small box also charged with making history.

This little box is the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (or MOXIE). Its aim is to transforming part of the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere of the red planet into oxygen. Like Ingenuity, it is a demonstration of technology that could ultimately allow future Martian explorers to breathe, but also to fill the oxygen tanks they will need to return to Earth.

As a tech demo, this little gold case will only work occasionally. In addition, the instrument requires a significant energy input in order to heat a key part of the experiment to around 800 ° C.

The idea is that each time MOXIE is running, the instrument will spend about two hours warming up, then producing oxygen for about an hour. This process will use most of Perseverance’s power supply for the day.

An almost identical twin of MOXIE used for tests at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: JPL / Caltech

Several challenges to overcome

To operate, the instrument must extract carbon dioxide from the thin Martian atmosphere, then separate the carbon from the oxygen. MOXIE then produces carbon monoxide gas as a by-product (a gas that dissipates quickly).

While operating, MOXIE should not use all the carbon dioxide absorbed, at the risk of producing carbon soot instead of carbon monoxide, which could clog its instruments.

Another important point: if the instrument does not receive enough electricity, the reaction will reverse. In other words, MOXIE will work like a fuel cell. Instead of drawing oxygen from CO2, it will attempt to produce CO2 from oxygen. Since there is no source of oxygen on Mars, it will therefore begin to extract the famous gas from the anode side of the device, which will break down the material.

Note that MOXIE will only attempt to produce oxygen on a small scale. And for good reason, Perseverance does not offer only 110 watts of power available for the whole rover.

Perseverance on Mars
Photo taken by Perseverance on the 21 March 2021 (Sol 29). Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

A (new) historic feat

But will this box succeed in its mission? According to NASA, The answer is yes ! The Perseverance case would indeed have succeeded in converting some of the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen for the first time. It is also the first time that such a feat has been attempted and succeeded on another planet.

The demonstration took place on April 20, the day after the Ingenuity feat. During this first test, MOXIE would have produced five grams of oxygen, or enough to allow an astronaut exercising a normal activity to breathe for about ten minutes.

NASA engineers will now run more tests and try to increase production of the case. If successful, then we could imagine a much larger technology launched before the first manned launches to Mars. That way, we could then produce enough oxygen to make sure that the astronauts can get home, even before they leave Earth.

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