Mars Rover Has Been Given Some New Tech That Makes Oxygen From Carbon Dioxide

An artist's illustration of Perseverance. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover that launched to the Red Planet on July 30 has got its work cut out. The interplanetary explorer has been tasked with carrying out a number of tests and experiments, the results of which may bring us closer to realizing human exploration of Mars. Now, armed with a device called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), the rover will attempt to produce one of our most valued assets: oxygen.

On a planet where oxygen makes up 0.2 percent of the atmosphere, compared to Earth where 21 percent of the atmosphere is oxygen, it’s a little difficult to come across breathable air. Space missions can of course carry their own but this precious, invisible life-sustainer makes for a surprisingly weighty payload. As such, it’s highly unlikely future space missions could safely and sensibly cart the necessary O2 so far, and so instead NASA’s focus has shifted to trying to rustle up some of their own on Mars.

The rover’s mission to test MOXIE’s efficacy is just a test run, meaning that the 2020 model is about 1 percent of the size that is intended to one day be sent to Mars. The tech works by transforming carbon dioxide (which it has by the bucketload as 95 percent of Mars' atmosphere is CO2) by electrochemically splitting it into oxygen and carbon monoxide. It then combines the free oxygen to make O2. In this instance, MOXIE will then pump the breathable oxygen and carbon monoxide back into the atmosphere, but future attempts will aim to store the O2 in tanks for use both by humans and the rocket’s lengthy journey home.

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The MOXIE prototype is 1 percent of the size it would need to be for use in future missions. NASA/Wikimedia Commons

This is the first time such a feat has been attempted on Mars but scientists on the project insist the output of oxygen and carbon monoxide won’t alter the planet’s atmosphere significantly enough to cause concern.

"If you release the carbon monoxide into the Mars atmosphere, eventually it will combine with a very small amount of residual oxygen that's there and turn back into carbon dioxide," said Michael Hecht, a principal investigator for MOXIE in an interview with Business Insider.

Humans need around 0.5 cubic meters (19 cubic feet) of air per day whereas, according to NASA, this version of the MOXIE apparatus will only be able to create around 0.03 cubic meters (1.2 cubic feet) of “Earth air”. The experiment will continue throughout the Perseverance mission, intermittently attempting to transform CO2 after it arrives, hopefully on February 18, 2021. One for the diary, lads.

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[H/T: Business Insider]

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