NASA has taken another monumental step in its continued exploration of Mars after managing to convert carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere to pure oxygen.
The US space agency confirmed they’d logged another extra-terrestrial first this morning, saying the feat was achieved on Tuesday by an experimental device aboard Perseverance, the six-wheeled science rover that landed on Mars in February.
In its first activation, MOXIE, a toaster-sized instrument short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment, managed to produce approximately five grams of oxygen.
NASA said the oxygen supply was equivalent to roughly 10 minutes worth of breathing for an astronaut.
“The results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said.
“Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.”
NASA believes getting four astronauts off the Martian surface would take about seven tonnes of rocket fuel, combined with 25 tonnes of oxygen – supplies that will be difficult to obtain even with MOXIE’s breakthrough.
MOXIE operates through electrolysis, meaning it uses extreme heat to separate oxygen atoms from molecules of carbon dioxide, which NASA says accounts for about 95 per cent of the atmosphere on Mars.
The remaining five per cent of Mars' atmosphere consists mostly of molecular nitrogen and argon, although oxygen exists in insignificant trace amounts.
Regardless, MOXIE principal investigator Michael Hecht said transporting a one-ton oxygen-conversion machine to Mars is more practical than trying to haul 25 tonnes of oxygen in tanks from earth.
Astronauts living and working on Mars would require perhaps one tonne of oxygen between them to last an entire year, Hecht said.