Magic on Mars: Perseverance rover turns carbon dioxide into oxygen

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  • “This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars.”
  • The process could one day help astronauts breathe on the red planet.
  • Much larger versions of MOXIE could be used to transform huge quantities of carbon dioxide into oxygen.

The Perseverance rover on Mars continues to perform amazing feats of science.

This week, an instrument aboard Perseverance turned carbon dioxide into oxygen, a process that could one day help astronauts breathe on the Red Planet.

The Martian atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide, which doesn’t do much for us humans, who need oxygen to breathe.

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter, in a statement.

The toaster-size, experimental instrument aboard Perseverance that performed the experiment is known as MOXIE, which is an acronym for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, according to NASA.

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“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,”  Reuters said. “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.”

NASA technicians lower the MOXIE instrument into the Perseverance rover.

Whether for rockets or astronauts, oxygen is key, said MOXIE’s principal investigator, Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory.

MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms, according to NASA. A waste product, carbon monoxide, is emitted into the Martian atmosphere.

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In this first experiment, MOXIE’s oxygen production was quite small – about 5 grams, equal to about 10 minutes’ worth of breathable oxygen for an astronaut, NASA said.  MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.

Much larger, better versions of MOXIE could be used to transform huge quantities of carbon dioxide into oxygen.

“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” NASA’s Trudy Kortes said. “It’s the first technology of its kind that will help future missions ‘live off the land,’ using elements of another world’s environment.”  

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