Mars 2020 rover.
Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is coming together, headed for its launch window: July 17 – Aug. 5, 2020. If all goes well, the mega-machine will touch down on the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021.

Once firmly planted on Mars, one onboard experiment promises to help prepare for human exploration of that faraway world.

MOXIE stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, demonstrating a way that future explorers might produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing.

Breathe easy! MOXIE is carefully placed within chassis of Mars 2020 rover.
Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Installation

Last month, members of NASA’s Mars 2020 project installed the car-battery-sized MOXIE into the chassis of the rover.

MOXIE will collect carbon dioxide (CO2) from the Martian atmosphere and electrochemically split the carbon dioxide molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide molecules. The oxygen is then analyzed for purity before being vented back out to the Martian atmosphere along with the carbon monoxide and other exhaust products.

Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Suck it up

The atmosphere of Mars is mostly CO2. Demonstration of the capability for extracting oxygen from it, under Martian environmental conditions, will be a critical step toward how humans on Mars will use the Red Planet’s natural resources. Oxygen can be used in the rocket propulsion to launch homeward from Mars, as well as for breathing.

Approximately two hours of oxygen (O2) production per experiment will be scheduled intermittently over the duration of the Mars 2020 rover mission. MOXIE’s oxygen production rate will be about 10 grams per hour – about 0.022 pounds per hour.

Mars ship.
Credit: National Geographic TV

Future oxygen generators that support human missions on Mars must be about 100 times larger than MOXIE. Indeed, to launch off of Mars, human explorers need about 33 to 50 tons (30 to 45 metric tons) of fuel.

“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 experiment from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

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