MIT system will make oxygen on next NASA Mars mission

If proven to work on the NASA Mars 2020 mission, a much larger MOXIE-like system could later be used to produce oxygen on a larger scale


MIT researchers this week found out that a system they have developed to produce oxygen on Mars will be making the next NASA trip to the Red Planet.

 MIT’s Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment or MOXIE will be just one of the seven instruments that will travel on the Mars 2020, mission which will feature a large rover similar to the Mars Curiosity rover currently looking around on Mars.

 According to MIT, MOXIE is a specialized reverse fuel cell whose primary function is to consume electricity in order to produce oxygen on Mars, where the atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide. In a normal fuel cell, fuel is heated together with an oxidizer — often oxygen — producing electricity. In this case, however, electricity produced by a separate machine would be combined with carbon dioxide from the Martian air to produce oxygen and carbon monoxide in a process called solid oxide electrolysis, MIT stated.

 The experiment will generate about an ounce of oxygen an hour and will be run at least 50 times during the multi-year operation, according to MIT.

 If proven to work on the Mars 2020 mission, a much larger MOXIE-like system could later be used to produce oxygen on a larger scale, for life-sustaining activities for human travelers and to provide liquid oxygen needed to burn the rocket fuel for a return trip to Earth.

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“It’s a pretty exotic way to run a fuel cell on Earth, but on Mars if you want to run an engine, you don’t have oxygen. Over 75% of what you would have to carry to run an engine on Mars would be oxygen,” said Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE instrument and assistant director for research management at the MIT Haystack Observatory in a statement. “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. That’s one of the largest pieces of the mass budget that we would need to send astronauts there and back. So if we can eliminate that piece by making the oxygen on Mars, we’re way ahead of the game,” Hecht stated.

 Hecht said a long-term plan for getting humans to Mars — and back — would look something like this: First, a small nuclear reactor would be sent to the Red Planet along with a scaled-up version of the MOXIE instrument. Over a couple of years, its oxygen tank would fill up in preparation for human visitors. Once the crew arrives, “they have their power source, they have their fuel, and the infrastructure for the mission is already in place,” Hecht says. “Producing oxygen on the Martian surface is likely the simplest solution for a number of reasons. It would, for example, eliminate the difficulty and expense of sending liquid oxygen stores to Mars.”

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 According to NASA, the Mars 2020 mission will be based on the design of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, which landed almost two years ago, and currently is operating on Mars. The new rover will carry more sophisticated, upgraded hardware and new instruments to conduct geological assessments of the rover's landing site, determine the potential habitability of the environment, and directly search for signs of ancient Martian life.

The other instruments besides MOXIE announced for the mission include:

  • Mastcam-Z, an advanced camera system with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging capability with the ability to zoom. The instrument also will determine mineralogy of the Martian surface and assist with rover operations.
  • SuperCam, an instrument that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy. The instrument will also be able to detect the presence of organic compounds in rocks and regolith from a distance.
  • Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer that will also contain an imager with high resolution to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials. PIXL will provide capabilities that permit more detailed detection and analysis of chemical elements than ever before.
  • Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), a spectrometer that will provide fine-scale imaging and uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds. SHERLOC will be the first UV Raman spectrometer to fly to the surface of Mars and will provide complementary measurements with other instruments in the payload.
  • Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), a set of sensors that will provide measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape.
  • The Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX), a ground-penetrating radar that will provide centimeter-scale resolution of the geologic structure of the subsurface.

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