An instrument on the U.S. space agency NASA’s Mars rover, Perseverance, has been reliably producing oxygen from the planet’s thin atmosphere for more than a year, a finding that bodes well for extended future missions to the planet.
A study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances and led by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied the work of the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, known as MOXIE.
The study shows that since it was activated in April 2021 — two months after Perseverance landed on Mars — MOXIE was able to produce oxygen on seven experimental runs, in a variety of atmospheric conditions, including during the day and night, and through different Martian seasons. In each run, the instrument reached its target of producing six grams of oxygen per hour — about the rate of a modest tree on Earth.
The researchers, along with NASA scientists and planners, envision that a scaled-up version of MOXIE could be sent to Mars ahead of a human mission to continuously produce oxygen at the rate equal to several hundred trees. The system should generate enough oxygen to both sustain humans once they arrive and fuel a rocket for returning astronauts back to Earth.
The principal investigator for the study, MIT’s Dr. Michael Hecht, said in a press release the steady output that MOXIE has demonstrated is a promising first step toward those goals.
Hecht said the instrument’s performance producing oxygen on Mars also represents the first demonstration of in-situ, or on-site “resource utilization,” which is the process of using a planet’s existing materials [in this case, carbon dioxide] to make resources [such as oxygen] that would otherwise have to be transported from Earth.
Hect and his MIT co-authors were among researchers from several institutions, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which helped develop and manage MOXIE.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.