NASA Perseverance rover extracts breathable oxygen from Martian air

The MOXIE instrument aboard NASA’ Perseverance rover extracts breathable air from the Martian atmosphere by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules.
The MOXIE instrument extracted approximately 5 grams of oxygen from the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere of Mars on April 20 | Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A toaster-sized instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover has successfully extracted breathable oxygen from Martian air paving the way for future crewed missions to the Red Planet.

NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on the surface of Mars on February 18, a little over six months after being launched atop an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral. Among the rover’s suite of scientific instruments is the Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), a gold-plated box designed to extract oxygen from the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere of Mars.

MOXIE was turned on for the first time on April 20, the 60th Martian day of the mission. During this first operation, it successfully extracted 5 grams of oxygen from the Martian air, which is equivalent to about 10 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut.

“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “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.”

Designed to extract up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour, MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which are composed of two oxygen atoms and one carbon atom.

The conversion process requires a great deal of heat with temperatures reaching approximately 800 degrees Celsius. The instrument utilises a 3D-printed nickel alloy and a lightweight aerogel to effectively manage this heat. The thin layer of gold it’s coated in reflects infrared heat ensuring that it does not radiate outward and potentially damage other parts of the rover.

In addition to providing breathable air for future crewed missions to the surface of Mars, Oxygen will also be important to refuel rockets for their journey back to Earth.

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a crew of four would require approximately 25 metric tons of oxygen along with 7 metric tons of propellant to get off the Martian surface. As a result, if the mission instead included a one-ton integrated oxygen converter, the additional 24 metric tons of capacity could be used for a wide range of mission-critical equipment.

MOXIE is slated to extract oxygen from the Martian air at least nine more times over the course of one Martian year. Each extraction will be utilized to tweak the process to find the most efficient method for generating oxygen on the surface of the Red Planet.

Andrew Parsonson is a space enthusiast and the founder of Rocket Rundown. He has worked as a journalist and blogger for various industries for over 5 years and has a passion for both fictional and real-life space travel. Currently, Andrew is the primary writer for Rocket Rundown as we look to expand our reach and credibility.