MIT and NASA to make oxygen on Mars

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

MOXIE will work to convert the atmosphere of Mars into oxygen.

We often take oxygen for granted, breathing it in and out without even thinking about it, but you’d go blue in the face on the planet Mars. That’s why NASA is teaming up with MIT researchers to help future explorers have enough oxygen for life support on the Red Planet.

On the Mars 2020 mission, which is a planned $1.9 billion roving laboratory, NASA will use MIT’s oxygen-creating MOXIE instrument to tweak the martian atmosphere.

MOXIE, which stands for “Mars OXygen In situ resource utilisation Experiment” (I think I’ll stick with calling it MOXIE), is a special fuel cell that consumes electricity to produce oxygen. Since Mars has an atmosphere that is 96% carbon dioxide (which our bodies exhale after converting the oxygen we inhale), MOXIE will have a tough job to do.

Many space scientists believe Mars will be the next frontier in space, kind of like how the Moon was a major exploration goal in the 1960s. In fact, NASA recently celebrated the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing, which took place on July 20, 1969, and said they’re now aiming for the Red Planet. One of the main MIT researchers working on MOXIE, Michael Hecht, says, “Human exploration of Mars will be a [major] event for the next generation, the same way the Moon landing mission was for my generation.”

As for the Mars 2020 mission, it will largely focus on whether or not humans can live on Mars, and there’s even a reality show being developed where contestants will go live in a martian colony! Without MOXIE, this mission could get super expensive. Why? Well, both the astronauts and the rocket need oxygen, because the return trip to Earth requires burning massive amounts of liquid oxygen. Hecht explains, “When we send humans to Mars, we will want them to return safely, and to do that they need a rocket to lift off the planet. That’s one of the largest pieces of the mass budget that we would need to send astronauts there and back. So if we can eliminate that piece by making the oxygen on Mars, we’re way ahead of the game.”

Images courtesy of NASA and JPL.