There’s oxygen on Mars, and we’ll be able to breathe it

There's oxygen on Mars, and NASA has found a way to make it breathable for future space missions.

Mars exploration is now on the agenda in the affairs of NASA, and every other company engaged in space missions in the new millennium.

They are looking for answers to crucial questions: how to make sustainable the life of future astronauts on the surface of the red planet and how to fuel the rockets that should transport people and instruments from Mars to Earth, for starters.

Among the missions of the heroic Perseverance rover was to test a small instrument capable of extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. Well, the experiment has succeeded and NASA has broken the silence: there is oxygen on Mars and we can breathe it.

MOXIE, the robot that produces oxygen

MOXIE, Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, is an instrument of only 30 centimeters installed on the Perseverance rover, arrived on Mars last February 18. The test to which the small robot was subjected took place in April, and NASA is now ready to share the results of the experiment.

But how does MOXIE work? As NASA engineer Asad Aboobaker explains, "the Martian atmosphere contains a lot of carbon dioxide, so if we want to produce oxygen on Mars for use in future exploration or launch systems, a clever way might be to extract it from CO2."

The Mars atmosphere is in fact 96 percent carbon dioxide, which is why MOXIE was designed to extract oxygen from CO2 by electrolysis, that is, separating its atoms from carbon dioxide molecules.

The process of transforming the Martian atmosphere into "breathable air" was then tested in a two-hour experiment, in which MOXIE was able to produce a total of 5.4 grams of oxygen, which would be enough to support the vital functions of an astronaut for about 10 minutes.

A modest start, they say at NASA, but one that could finally make the now not-so-scientific scenarios of human colonization of the red planet a reality.

The first instrument "from another world"

MOXIE is designed to produce up to 10 grams of oxygen every hour, and will be engaged in at least nine more extraction attempts over the next two years of the mission.

"MOXIE has proven for the first time ever," says Dr. Asad Aboobaker, "that it is possible to extract oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere." NASA's plan is to send instruments "200 times larger than the current MOXIE" to the surface of Mars, which will be able to provide oxygen for astronauts to breathe, but above all to fuel the means of transport that will bring men and vehicles to the planet.

Much of the oxygen produced by MOXIE, in fact, is destined to become the fuel for spaceships that - after a seven-month journey in space - will land on Mars and then have to leave again, certainly not before having done some refueling.

Quella dell’uso delle risorse locali, sia su Marte sia sulla Luna, è una necessità considerata ineliminabile, nei programmi delle future esplorazioni spaziali: "gli esploratori spaziali del futuro dipenderanno dalla possibilità di produrre propellente su Marte per poter tornare a casa", afferma Jim Reuter, amministratore associato del Direttorato NASA per le Space Technology Mission (STMD).

"MOXIE non è soltanto il primo strumento a produrre ossigeno in un altro mondo" ricordano dal STMD, "è anche la prima tecnologia che aiuterà le future missioni a sfruttare gli elementi naturali di un altro mondo".
I prossimi passi prevedono di inviare sul pianeta rosso un MOXIE molto più potente, in grado di produrre circa 2 chili d’ossigeno ogni ora, sufficienti al fabbisogno di una piccola squadra di astronauti.