MIT scientists are on track to create an oxygen mine on the red planet


When NASA’s robotic Perseverance rover blasted off to Mars last year, it brought with it a small, golden box called MOXIE, for the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment.

Since then, MOXIE has been making oxygen out of thin Martian air.

And on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, the team behind this contraption confirmed that MOXIE has been working so well, in fact, that its oxygen output is comparable to the rate of a modest Earth tree’s output.

By the end of 2021, extensive data showed that MOXIE successfully reached its oxygen target output of six grams per hour during seven separate experimental runs, as well as in a variety of atmospheric conditions. That includes day and night, different Martian seasons and other such things.

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The only thing we have not demonstrated is running at dawn or dusk, when the temperature is changing substantially,” Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE mission at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory, said in a press release. “We do have an ace up our sleeve that will let us do that, and once we test that in the lab, we can reach that last milestone to show we can really run any time.

A schematic showing where Moxie is on NASA's Mars rover. There are six wheels total on the rover, three on either side, and Moxie is toward the right-most wheel on the right side in the image.
A schematic showing where Moxie is on NASA’s Mars rover. There are six wheels total on the rover, three on either side, and Moxie is toward the right-most wheel on the right side in the image. By NASA

For scientists and space agencies alike, it’s especially exciting that MOXIE’s promise holds strong, because proposed timelines for astronaut-laden Mars expeditions have looming deadlines for learning how to keep future red planet space explorers safe.

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s goal of landing humans on Mars appears to be 2029, for instance, and NASA’s own upcoming Artemis I moon mission is meant to pave the way for Martian excursions planned for the 2030s or 2040s.

To support a human mission to Mars, we have to bring a lot of stuff from Earth, like computers, spacesuits, and habitats,” Jeffrey Hoffman, MOXIE deputy principal investigator and a professor at MIT, said in a press release. “But dumb old oxygen? If you can make it there, go for it — you’re way ahead of the game.

As it stands, MOXIE is super small (it’s basically the size of a toaster), but this is potentially a good thing. It means that if scientists can somehow scale up the patterned cube’s size, MOXIE could make far more than just six grams of oxygen per hour.

We have learned a tremendous amount that will inform future systems at a larger scale,” Hecht said.

Maybe one day, the researchers say, it could eventually produce oxygen at the rate of several hundred trees, thus sustaining astronauts once they arrive on Mars and fueling rockets that require the life-giving element to bring crew back to Earth.

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Astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use one metric ton between them,” Hecht said in a NASA press release last year. But, per the space agency, getting four astronauts off the Martian surface on a future mission would require approximately 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen.

Bringing all that oxygen from Earth would be supercostly and inefficient.

So, as Hoffman says, why not just make all the oxygen on the arid planet itself?

How does MOXIE work?

On Mars, MOXIE is actively converting carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere – where the element makes up a whopping 96% – into breathable oxygen.

A little chemistry 101 is that carbon dioxide molecules are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. Those bits are basically stuck together.

But an instrument within MOXIE, called the Solid Oxide Electrolyzer, can sort of harvest the oxygen bits within those CO2 molecules that scientists are interested in. Once complete, all the free-floating oxygen particles are recombined into O2, aka molecules with two oxygen atoms, otherwise known as the kind of oxygen we know and love.

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I know it’s different, but I keep thinking about Pixar’s WALL-E doing this. So, as WALL-E would say: Ta-da!

Technicians at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory lower the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover.
Technicians at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lower the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover. By NASA

This is the first demonstration of actually using resources on the surface of another planetary body, and transforming them chemically into something that would be useful for a human mission,” Hoffman said. “It’s historic in that sense.

Along the way, this process requires the use of superhigh heat – reaching temperatures of approximately 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius) – which is fascinatingly what gives MOXIE its characteristic gold coating.

Like with NASA’s trailblazing James Webb Space Telescope, MOXIE has to be shielded from infrared heat because it operates with heat itself. A gold coating does just that, and in fact the JWST’s mirrors are coated with gold for the exact reason, too.

Up next, the MOXIE team intends to demonstrate that MOXIE works well under even more intensive conditions, like a next run coming up that’ll occur during the “highest density of the year,” Hecht said. “We’ll set everything as high as we dare, and let it run as long as we can.”

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Now imagine how big those machines will have to be to sustain life on Mars. It’s just insane… And have you thought of the price it would costs just to bring the material needed for their construction on the red planet… After the ‘Moon Plot, they will soon build Mars Plot somewhere in the Arizona desert… [Science, Eureka Alert, CNET] has been banned from ad networks and is now entirely reader-supported CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT MY WORK… I will send you a small gemstone if you give more than 25$… Thanks in advance!

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  1. My fav mars lie is when the viking probe landed on mars in 1976 and the first picture got to JPL and one person in the media room says out loud ,”Just looks like Arizona.” Then a NASA tech comes running in the room and adjusts all the old tv’s in there by turning the red hue dial all the way to max and says,”See it is red on the red planet mars.” Such F’ing liars…. The breakaway civilization has been teraforming Mars for at least 70 years.

  2. Early 1920s or 30s astronomer Lowell took photos of Mars showing green vegetation with canal like lines criss crossing the planet. Google it! So what happened over these decade’s that we see a dead desert landscape?He observed seasonal changes too.
    Green patches and straight lines against a red sandy surface.

    • Vincent,

      Yep. I watched a video presentation put on by a retired NASA guy. He said he couldn’t comment on anything as he had signed non-disclosure agreements. But he went on to presenting a slide show. It shows exactly what you say. Valleys that were green during the day, and brown at night. Like plants folding up for the cold of night. Angers me. I grew up reading all the old fashion Sci-Fi books where we settle the Solar System. They have hidden all the fun stuff from us. All this is why we haven’t gone back to the Moon. They found the landscape there littered with alien artifacts. It was very obvious Man was not the first visitor. They had to edit so much of the video, they filmed some on a stage on Earth. When the film was analyzed, folks noticed things not placed just right. So that started the Conspiracy that we didn’t go to the Moon.

  3. The only Mars they visit is the stage and script they produce and perform on. NASA magic, not as good as Hollywood, but close.

  4. Well, they lie about everything. Including the atmosphere on Mars. They always make SciFi movies where they wear space suits on Mars because it’s mostly a vacuum. In that same movie, they have an emergency because of a windstorm that’s blowing everything around. Then they send a drone probe to Mars and fly it around!! Takes quite a bit of air for one of those things to fly. And now and then an un-doctored photo gets out, and there are blue skies and brown earth. Not red. Oh and they land probes there with a parachute. Indications are there is an oxygen atmosphere but very thin due to lack of surface water. So most likely a person can walk around with just an oxygen bottle. Not a space suit. Why do they lie to us about this? Because that’s what they do. Knowledge is power. And a thin atmosphere opens the door to life. And they seem determined to deny that possibility forever. Blow holes in the carefully crafted paradigm that’s been created to keep us under control. If they have their way, we will never go to Mars or the Moon. And we’d all believe the Earth is flat. Evil folks run planet earth. But their days are numbered.

  5. Why aren’t they using this system all around the planet Earth, if we have a co2 problem. Instead of Mars?

  6. You’re a bit behind the curve on the mars thing.

    We “ain’t” been there.

    Perhaps we will send that team of women to collect the walrus bone, trap that eagle, and catch one of those lemmings – photos from “mars” (island off coast of canada with no fly zone overhead, where Nassholes (george carlin term) “practiced” with rover and took a lot of swell photos.

    Oh yeah, and that exact replica photo of a desert in egypt – with red filter doncha know?

    Three words – van allen belts.

  7. So the manufactured Krebs cycle (in effect) is a good thing on Mars, but the science on earth says C02 is bad, and National suicide is recommended?

    Pretty sick of nasa and science horseshit.

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