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Oxygen produced on Mars for the first time, with help from Utah company

Technicians at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory lower the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

PASADENA, Calif. — For the first time, the Perseverance rover has converted some of the atmosphere on Mars into oxygen — and it happened with a big assist from a Utah based company. 

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California installed an experimental tool roughly the size of a toaster on Perseverance, known as MOXIE, which stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. 

A Utah company called OxEon Energy manufactured solid oxide electrolysis cells that give MOXIE its – well, moxie. 

Why making oxygen on Mars matters

The experiment of generating oxygen on Mars took place April 20, Perseverance rover in a news release, or about 60 Martian days, or “sols,” since Perseverance landed in February. 

Devices like MOXIE could make future missions possible, the space agency said. Isolating and storing oxygen on the red planet could help power rockets to allow astronauts to leave its surface again — or could help provide the air future astronauts breath while there. 

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, the associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one-day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.” 

The experiment

During the experiment, NASA says MOXIE spent about two hours warming up before producing oxygen at a rate of around 6 grams per hour. They reduced the rate during the run of the experiment to check up on the instrument. After about an hour, NASA said it generated about 5.4 grams of oxygen total or enough for an astronaut to breathe while performing 10 minutes of normal activity. 

That’s a far cry from what would be needed to propel astronauts back off Mars and toward home. To launch four astronauts off the surface, NASA would need to find a way to generate much more oxygen — 55,000 pounds of it, or about 25 metric tons. Just living and working on Mars would take far less. 

“The astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use one metric ton between them,” said Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory.

Merely bringing 25 metric tons of oxygen along for the ride to Mars so astronauts could leave again later would be more trouble than transporting an oxygen converter and generating the gas on the planet. A larger MOXIE-style device to convert oxygen would weigh about one ton. 

How MOXIE works

MOXIE separates oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which is abundant on Mars. The atmosphere of the red planet is about 96% carbon dioxide. 

MOXIE requires a lot of heat to convert carbon dioxide into its component oxygen and carbon atoms — about 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius). As a result, it was designed to be very tolerant of extreme temperatures — and it’s coated with gold to reflect heat back inward and protect Perseverance. 

Scientists plan to use MOXIE to extract oxygen at least nine more times over the next nearly two years, each building on the experiments that come before. Eventually, NASA hopes to prove its worth in a variety of atmospheric conditions. 

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