New feat to the credit of Perseverance: the NASA rover transformed carbon dioxide from Mars’ atmosphere into oxygen, a first on another planet, the US space agency announced on Wednesday.
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“This is a crucial first attempt to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, an associate administrator at NASA.
The demonstration took place on April 20 and NASA hopes that future versions of the experimental tool used can set the stage for exploration by humans.
Not only could the process produce oxygen for future astronauts to breathe, it could also prevent the large amounts of oxygen needed to propel the rocket on the return trip from Earth.
The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (Moxie) is a golden box the size of a car battery, located on the right front of the rover.
It uses electricity and chemistry to split CO2 molecules, producing oxygen on one side and carbon monoxide on the other.
For his first experiment, Moxie produced 5 grams of oxygen, enough to breathe for 10 minutes for an astronaut with normal activity.
The engineers in charge of Moxie will now conduct more tests and try to increase this result. The tool has been developed to be able to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.
Designed at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Moxie was manufactured with heat-resistant materials to tolerate the scorching temperatures of 800 degrees Celsius required for its operation.
A thin layer of gold prevents it from radiating this heat and damaging the rover.
According to MIT engineer Michael Hecht, a one-ton Moxie – this weighs 17 kilograms – could produce the roughly 25 tons of oxygen needed for a rocket to take off from Mars.
Producing oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere, which is 96% carbon dioxide, may be easier than extracting ice from beneath its surface to make oxygen by electrolysis.
Perseverance landed on the Red Planet on February 18. Its mission: to look for traces of ancient life.