Nasa creates breathable oxygen on Mars, paving way for human exploration of the Red Planet

Jamie Johnson
·2 min read
The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment - or MOXIE - is a golden box the size of a toaster - NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS
The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment - or MOXIE - is a golden box the size of a toaster - NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS

Nasa has made breathable oxygen on Mars, in a landmark experiment which could pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet in years to come.

An instrument on the six-wheeled Perseverance rover converted carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into oxygen, the first time this has happened on another planet, the space agency said.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment - or MOXIE - is a golden box the size of a toaster, and is located inside the front right side of the rover.

In its first run, the machine created five grams of oxygen, equivalent to about 10 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut carrying out normal activity.

MOXIE's engineers will now run more tests and try to step up its output. It is designed to be able to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.

It is the second successful mission on Mars in less than a week after a helicopter was successfully launched, flown and landed on the Jezero crater, marking the first powered flight on another planet.

"This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars," said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for Nasa's space technology mission directorate.

The technology demonstration took place on April 20, and it's hoped future versions of the experimental instrument that was used could pave the way for future human exploration.

Not only can the process produce oxygen for future astronauts to breathe, but it could eliminate the need to carry vast amounts of oxygen from Earth to use as rocket propellant for the return journey.

Dubbed a "mechanical tree," MOXIE uses electricity and chemistry to split carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms.

It produces carbon monoxide as a byproduct.

Designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MOXIE was built with heat-resistant materials including a nickel alloy and designed to tolerate the searing temperatures of 800 degrees Celsius required for it to run.

A thin gold coating ensures it doesn't radiate its heat and harm the rover.

Producing oxygen from Mars' 96 per cent carbon dioxide atmosphere could prove to be a more feasible option than extracting ice from under its surface which would then have to be electrolysed.

MIT engineer Michael Hecht said a one ton version of MOXIE could produce the approximately 25 tons of oxygen needed for a rocket to blast off from Mars.