NASA’s Perseverance rover just keeps setting records. It’s the first device to capture audio of the Martian surface, the first vehicle to carry a drone to another planet, and now, the first piece of technology to produce oxygen outside of Earth.
Before shipping Perseverance to the Red Planet, NASA equipped the vehicle with a toaster sized instrument called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE for short. This small yellow box sucks up carbon dioxide molecules (Mars’ atmosphere is 96% CO2) and divides them, producing oxygen and, for better or worse, carbon monoxide.
MOXIE is supposed to push out 10 grams of oxygen an hour, but the unit only made a total of 5 grams during its first 2-hour expirament. That’s enough oxygen to keep someone alive for about 10 minutes. A larger version of the MOXIE unit would, in theory, produce oxygen at a rate that’s more suitable for our needs, or even produce the 27.5 tons of oxygen required to power rockets leaving Mars to return to Earth.
NASA says that MOXIE heats up to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius) while in use. It gets so hot that NASA had to line it with aerogel to protect the Perseverance rover. Researchers may find a oxygen-production method that uses less energy or produces less heat in the future, but for now, MOXIE is the best we’ve got.
This new mission proves that we can produce an environment for humans on Mars, though colonization is still very far away. Transporting a large MOXIE unit to Mars is impractical right now, and the energy needed to continually run such a unit would be difficult to find on the Martian surface.