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NASA's Perseverance rover makes OXYGEN on Mars for the first time

Future astronauts travelling to the Red Planet can 'breathe easy' after NASA's Perseverance rover made history by creating oxygen from Martian CO2.  


The six-wheeled rover is on Mars to search for signs of ancient life, look for water and gather samples of Martian soil and rock to one day return to the Earth.


It also has a range of other science experiments, including MOXIE, a small, gold box-shaped instrument that used electrolysis technology to generate oxygen.


MOXIE, or the Mars Oxygen In-situ Resource Utilization Experiment, produced 5.4 grams of oxygen in an hour by pulling in CO2 and converting it to the life giving chemical during its first test on the Red Planet.


This version is capable of producing up to 12g of oxygen per hour, or about 288g per day. Astronauts on the ISS consume an average of 840g of O2 every day.


'This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,' said NASA's Jim Reuter, adding it will make future human missions more viable.


The six-wheeled rover is on Mars to search for signs of ancient life, look for water and gather samples of Martian soil and rock to one day return to the Earth


The technology demonstration took place on April 20, and it's hoped future versions of the experimental instrument could pave the way for future human exploration.


Not only can the process produce oxygen for future astronauts to breathe, but it could make hauling vast amounts of oxygen over from Earth to use as rocket propellant for the return journey unnecessary.


For both rockets and astronauts, oxygen is crucial, says MOXIE's principal investigator, Michael Hecht of MIT Haystack Observatory.


'To burn its fuel, a rocket must have many times more oxygen by weight. To get four astronauts off the Martian surface on a future mission would require 15,000 pounds of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds of oxygen.'

In contrast, Hecht says, 'The astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use [2,200 pounds] between them to breathe.'


Dubbed a 'mechanical tree,' it uses electricity and chemistry to split carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms.


It also produces carbon monoxide as a byproduct, which is 'expelled harmlessly back into the atmosphere,' according to the MIT team that built MOXIE.


In its first run, MOXIE produced 5 grams of oxygen, equivalent to about 10 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut carrying out normal activity.


MOXIE's engineers will now run more tests and try to step up its output. 

It is designed to be able to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.


Designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MOXIE was built with heat-resistant materials like nickel alloy and designed to tolerate the searing temperatures of 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius) required for it to run.


A thin gold coating ensures it doesn't radiate its heat and harm the rover and future versions could be much larger, able to power a rocket launch.


MIT engineer Michael Hecht said a one ton version of MOXIE could produce the approximately 55,000 pounds of oxygen needed for a rocket to blast off from Mars.


MOXIE's engineers will now run more tests and try to step up its output. It is designed to be able to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour


Producing oxygen from Mars' 95% carbon dioxide atmosphere might be a more feasible option than extracting ice from under its surface then electrolyzing it to make oxygen, another idea being proposed by scientists.


Serving as a proof of concept, MOXIE has paved the way for possible future Mars missions to produce oxygen, which will be needed for rocket propulsion on return trips for crewed missions.


'The first run of MOXIE is a step in the right direction to bring us closer to the possibility of human missions to Mars,' says Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of the practice in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

'The technology that evolves from what we have been able to do here will be the grandchildren descended from the success of our MOXIE instrument.'


Perseverance landed on the Red Planet on February 18 on a mission to search for signs for microbial life.


Its mini helicopter Ingenuity made history this week by achieving the first powered flight on another planet, with another flight scheduled for today.


It will try climbing up to 16ft off the ground, briefly hover, go to a slight tilt and move sideways for 7ft and come to stop.


When stopped Ingenuity will 'hover in place' and make turns to point its colour camera in different directions before landing back on the Wright Brothers Field.


The rover itself has also directly recorded the sounds of Mars for the first time and once Ingenuity finishes its run of flights in mid-May, will continue its own science mission to explore Jezero crater, catalogue rocks and search for life signs.


Its primary goal is to look for 'biosignatures' – signs of past or present microbial life – as well as gathering rock samples.


The rover will drill into the dusty surface and gather material into titanium tubes in the vehicle's belly.


NASA aims to gather at least 20 samples with a variety of material that can be brought back to Earth for further analysis.  


However, Perseverance is not bringing the samples back to Earth – when the rover reaches a suitable location, the tubes will dropped on the surface of Mars to be collected by a future retrieval mission, which is currently being developed. 

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