Although Mars is essentially humanity’s only option for a “Planet B” in this lifetime, it’s still quite a fixer-upper. One key breakthrough necessary for making the Red Planet reasonably hospitable, for example, is the ability to produce breathable oxygen from local atmosphere. That sounds very sci-fi, but as of April 20, 2021, it’s undeniable reality thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.
Gizmodo reported on the breakthrough experiment Perseverance performed on the surface of Mars. It comes as another first for the Martian rover as it continues to execute its various testing functions. The rover’s been operational since its landing on February 18, and just prior to this experiment, it delivered video of the first-ever controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.
A boxy, toaster-sized experimental instrument aboard Perseverance produced the oxygen. The instrument, dubbed MOXIE (or the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), performed its task by taking CO2 from Mars’ atmosphere and then running it through a “reverse” fuel cell. That is, MOXIE took Martian CO2, heated it to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit, and then zapped the molecules with electricity to strip them of their oxygen atoms.
“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), said in a press release from the space agency. “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.”
Speaking of which, NASA says MOXIE produced five grams of breathable oxygen for this experiment. Or enough to keep a person breathing for about 10 minutes. And while that doesn’t sound like a lot, at full capacity the unit can produce 10 grams per hour. A.k.a. enough for Mark Watney from The Martian to be able to science his way around certain asphyxiation.
For future Martian travelers who don’t have Watney’s skills, rest easy. NASA now wants to send a jumbo MOXIE to Mars—one that could not only produce oxygen for people, but also for rocket fuel. The ships need thousands of tons of the stuff, which is hard to find on Mars. And while, again, that may seem like sci-fi, the proof-of-concept obviously checks out. Plus, Mars’ atmosphere is 96% CO2, which means explorers will have plenty of breathable oxygen. As long as they don’t have any issues with their power supply. (For that issue, see fictional hero from previous paragraph.)