Tag Archives: perserverence

Another first: NASA’s Perseverance rover extracts oxygen on Mars

The toaster-sized experimental MOXIE instrument aboard the rover extracted oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide. It’s only a proof of concept, but it’s an important one, as it suggests that one day Martian astronauts could make their own oxygen for breathing and rocket fuel.

Technicians in the clean room carefully lowering the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A tree on Mars

The atmosphere of Mars is very different from that of Earth. It’s much thinner (about 96% thinner) and also has a different chemical make-up: it’s poor in oxygen and rich in carbon dioxide. Future astronauts won’t have much use for carbon dioxide, but pure oxygen is a different matter.

“When we send humans to Mars, we will want them to return safely, and to do that they need a rocket to lift off the planet. Liquid oxygen propellant is something we could make there and not have to bring with us. One idea would be to bring an empty oxygen tank and fill it up on Mars,” says Michael Hecht, Principal Investigator of the Perseverance project.

Researchers have been working on ways to do this for a while, and with the Perseverance rover, they got a chance to actually try it out — not in a lab on Earth, but right on Mars.

The MOXIE instrument aims to help humans explore Mars by making OXygen. It works “In situ” (in place) on the Red Planet, and is an Experiment.” As always, NASA loves to toy with acronyms, but the instrument did its job excellently so far.

MOXIE’s first run produced 5.4 grams of oxygen in an hour. The power supply used for the experiment limits potential production to 12 g/hr — about the same amount that a large tree would produce. It’s not spectacular, but it’s the first time this has ever been done, and it could also be scaled up .

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator STMD. “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 conversion process requires high levels of heat: 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius). To withstand these temperatures and carry out the process safely, MOXIE is built from heat-tolerant materials, including 3D-printed nickel alloys and a light aerogel that acts as a buffer, holding the heated air inside. MOXIE is coated with a thin gold layer that reflects infrared heat and ensures that it won’t damage other parts of Perseverance.

Illustration of the MOXIE instrument, depicting the elements within the instrument. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. 

Live off the land

This bodes well for future Mars missions, as transporting oxygen all the way there would be quite a hassle. Oxygen tends to take a lot of space, and it’s very unlikely that astronauts to Mars will be able to carry their own oxygen. Extracting oxygen from the Martian soil or atmosphere will therefore be crucial for future missions.

To get a team of four astronauts off of Mars, a future mission would require about 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen. Astronauts that would carry experiments and potentially spend a lot of time on the Red Planet would also require oxygen (though far less than this). With instruments like MOXIE, they could live off the land — quite literally.

“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within STMD. It’s the first technology of its kind that will help future missions “live off the land,” using elements of another world’s environment, also known as in-situ resource utilization.

“It’s taking regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and putting it through a processing plant, making it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide – the bulk of the atmosphere – and converting it into oxygen,” she said. “This process allows us to convert these abundant materials into useable things: propellant, breathable air, or, combined with hydrogen, water.”

Now that the technology demonstration was successful, NASA will attempt to extract oxygen at least nine more times over the next two years (Earthly years, that is). The goal is to test the equipment in different conditions to see if it keeps working properly.

Meanwhile, Perseverance will continue its mission to search for signs of microbial life on Mars, analyzing its geology and past climate, as well as paving the way for human exploration.

Perseverance with science instruments. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

Perseverance sent NASA a photo of Mars, and we can see its path from here

An update from NASA showcases a possible route that the Perseverance rover will take during its primary mission on Mars.

Jezero Crater. Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech / USGS.

Back in mid-February, 2021, the Perseverance rover touched down on the red planet, gearing up for a two-year-long mission. Its first objective is to explore the Jezero crater, where it landed, for evidence of life today or in the past. It may sound complicated, but the mission will mostly consist of the rover taking samples of rocks and soil formed from water-carried sediments billions of years ago.

That being said, nobody was sure exactly where the rover should look. So it beamed us back some photos to help NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS) decide.

Go left after the red rock

The path NASA chose will take Perseverance through several areas of interest: the cliffs at the center of Jezero (these used to be the edge of a delta), along its surface, up towards a series of possible ‘shoreline’ deposits, and finally over the rim of the crater.

Jezero was selected as a landing site for this mission because this area, in the past, used to be filled with water. It was picked as the most promising candidate for finding any traces of life out of sixty locations as it has several features that researchers believe are remains of ancient, once-habitable environments. As is the case with Gale Crater, where the Curiosity rover landed in 2012, these features formed in the presence of water and may thus contain clues to Mars’ past.

The base of the delta cliffs, for example, marks the outer edge of the area where sediments were deposited by a long-lost river flowing into the crater. Ground control hopes that rocks and sediment here hold fossilized bacteria. Meanwhile, the crater’s rim is the former boundary of an ancient lake and likely still holds evidence of how water levels fluctuated in this lake over the ages. Perseverance will examine them to hopefully determine when the crater first became a lake and, hopefully, how it stopped being a lake.

While it looks small on a video, the patch NASA chose is a few dozen kilometers long — long enough that it will probably take all of Perseverance’s main mission to traverse it all and stop at all points of interest. While the rover is likely going to spend several years exploring Mars, a separate mission will retrieve its samples and shuttle them back to Earth, NASA adds.

Rocks from the Moon helped us better understand how it and our wider solar system formed; the samples from Mars would undoubtedly help as well. But this time, we have a realistic chance of spotting signs of alien life. Understandably, then, researchers are anxious to get their hands and microscopes on some Martian dust and rocks.