(ORDO NEWS) — The Martian atmosphere in its current state is not at all favorable for earthlings. It is extremely thin, more than 100 times less dense than Earth’s, and is composed primarily of carbon dioxide. Any people trying to inhale it will soon find themselves not breathing at all.
But in this dusty, dry, alien world, a small tool, little more than a briefcase, reliably pumped out breathable oxygen. from the Martian atmosphere.
This is the first demonstration of in situ recycling of resources for human use on another planet – establishing a way to produce breathable air for a human mission to the red planet.
It is called MOXIE (Mars In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (ISRU)) and is installed inside NASA’s Perseverance rover. It uses a process called electrolysis to break down Martian carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen.
From February 2021, when Perseverance landed, until the end of 2021, MOXIE produced oxygen seven times and will continue to do so, the researchers said.
“This is the first demonstration of actually using resources on the surface of another planetary body and transforming them chemically into something useful for a human mission,” says former NASA astronaut and MOXIE Deputy Principal Investigator Jeffrey Hoffman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“In that sense, this is a historic event.”
The production of oxygen by electrolysis is nothing new. The International Space Station, for example, uses electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen and thus replenish its supply of air for breathing.
However, on Mars, water may be too valuable to be used in this way if another method is available.
Fortunately, oxygen is a component of many compounds, including carbon dioxide, which makes up approximately 96 percent of the atmosphere on Mars: a molecule made up of one carbon and two oxygen atoms.
The electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide to its constituent elements is well studied, known and understood; the challenge was to develop a tool here on Earth that could do it on Mars with the ingredients at hand.
The production of MOXIE oxygen is a multi-step process.
First, it sucks Martian air through a filter that purifies it. The purified Martian air is then compressed, heated, and passed through a Solid Oxide Electrolyzer (SOXE). The electrolyzer breaks down carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, which is released back into the Martian atmosphere, and oxygen ions.
The oxygen ions then recombine into O 2 , or molecular oxygen. , the quantity and purity of which is then measured before being released again.
The scientists determined that this process reliably led to the production of breathable oxygen. After a few hours of warm-up, it runs for 1 hour per experiment, followed by a shutdown period. During this 1 hour of operation, MOXIE produces up to 10 grams of breathing oxygen per astronaut for about 20 minutes.
In each of the seven launches, MOXIE produced between 5.4 and 8.9 grams of oxygen. molecular oxygen, only 49.9 grams.
Since temperatures and air densities on Mars vary greatly not only during the day and night, but also during the changing seasons of the year, MOXIE should be able to operate over a wide range of air temperatures and densities.
In seven launches, MOXIE was able to produce oxygen in a variety of conditions: day, night, and throughout the year.
“The only thing we haven’t demonstrated is running at dawn or dusk, when temperatures change significantly,” says MOXIE principal investigator Michael Heckt of MIT’s Haystack Observatory.
“We have an ace up our sleeve that will allow us to do this, and once we test it in the laboratory, we can reach this last frontier to show that we can really work at any time.” p>
Ideally, of course, the target is a life support system that can operate continuously, since that is how humans need to breathe. And it should be much larger than MOXIE: a small group of astronauts, Hecht said last year, would need about one metric ton of breathable oxygen for one year on Mars.
And it’s not. t includes the oxygen needed to fuel the journey home—in total, the mission would need roughly 500 tons of oxygen, the team calculated.
What the team has learned in the first year of MOXIE, the development of this larger system… but there is still a lot to be done.
The next experimental launch will take place at the time of year when the atmosphere is at its thickest. Then, according to the team, they will push the instrument with all their might, trying to produce as much oxygen as possible.
This will not only show what MOXIE is capable of, but also demonstrate its limitations, which in turn will help create a more reliable vehicle for a possible manned mission to Mars.
And that will solve a big part of the puzzle of not only making a place more welcoming to people, but making it safe for them to return home.
“In order to support a human mission to Mars, we need to bring a lot of things from Earth, such as computers, spacesuits and living quarters,” says Hoffman.
“But stupid old oxygen? If you can make it there, go for it – you’re way ahead of the game.”
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