Could MIT’s MOXIE instrument be the future of oxygen production on Mars?

About 80 million miles from Earth, Earth’s neighbor Mars has become the latest target for future space missions. While some like Elon Musk hope to reshape the planet and make it livable in the long term, others are looking into the possibilities of what the lengths of shorter missions can achieve.

“The mission is likely to be a year and a half,” says Dr. Michael Hecht. associate director at MIT Haystack Observatory and Project Director for Jet Propulsion Laboratory The Mars Environmental Compatibility Assessment (MECA). With the challenges posed by exploring the Red Planet, many researchers are trying to find ways to make Mars more habitable, focusing on developing a way to produce oxygen there.

In a new paper published in science progressHecht and other MIT scientists announced the development of the Mars In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) to produce oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide, which they say can be done with a device the size of car battery.

Background: weight of oxygen

Oxygen is always in our atmosphere, and it’s easy to think that it would be easy to bring with you to travel through space. However, having enough oxygen to facilitate both air to breathe and to recall fuel ton Oxgyen, all of which have to be loaded and stored. This can quickly add a lot of extra weight to the payload.

“It’s a lot more than you think,” Hecht said. extraction in an interview. “To give you an example, if you were to burn a two-pound stem in the heater, you would burn maybe four or five pounds of oxygen.” Not surprisingly, the weight of oxygen needed to launch a missile is much higher.

“The missile, within five or six minutes of launch, will use more than 27 or 28 tons,” Hecht explains. Because of the huge amount of oxygen needed for successful space travel, many researchers are trying to find ways to reduce this need by producing oxygen directly on Mars, using the resources the planet already has.

Analysis: Giving Mars MOXIE

While the atmosphere of Mars is very thin, it has a high concentration of carbon dioxide. Hecht and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology saw carbon dioxide as a pathway for oxygen production. Taking this idea with them in production, MOXIE is designed for use Electricity To split carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen.

“People who think of chemistry, the phrase ‘carbon dioxide’ tells you that there are two carbons and two oxygens in every molecule,” Hecht says. “So why don’t you take both oxygen? Well, we don’t want to make carbon because it screws up the business and makes the machine stop working.” While current methods used with MOXIE remove carbon monoxide as a waste product, in the future Hecht hopes it can be reused to produce fuel.

The outlook: water and air

MOXIE is currently operating on the surface of Mars as part of NASA’s Persevering rover mission, and as its engineering team looks to the future, one of their goals will be to see how MOXIE’s capabilities can be useful in a variety of future missions. Hecht believes the next steps after successfully producing oxygen on the Red Planet will be harvesting the planet’s water in the form of ice.

“You can then combine the ability to process carbon dioxide from the air with water, which is, you know, dihydrogen oxide, and make more complex chemicals starting with methane for fuel,” Hecht says. “But moving from there to all kinds of useful chemical plants.”

Hecht and his colleagues hope that their efforts with MOXIE are just the beginning of a journey that will eventually take us to the Red Planet. As for what MOXIE might be able to produce for potential future Mars colonists, there are plenty of possibilities.

“It’s hard to imagine, but it could be anything from wax to vodka,” Hecht says. “I mean, who knows?”

Kina Hughes-Castleberry is a writer for The Debrief and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). Her writing rhythms include deep technology, metaverse, and quantum technology. You can find more of her work on her website: