In 2015, Matt Damon brought Astronaut Mark Watney to life in the Ridley Scott film The Martian, a live-action adaptation of Andy Weir‘s book by the same name. In the movie, Watney is a botanist that finds himself stranded and presumed dead on the surface of Mars. Watney must survive and find a way to signal Earth, so he sets about rigging up the limited supplies on hand to do just that. Though the story is entertaining science fiction, it has its basis in science fact, pulling in existing technology in use by the International Space Station.

Currently, oxygen production is done in a closed-loop on a small-scale inside the orbiting laboratory. The movie kept the same technology for the Martian habitat, but that may not be the best option on the planet. There is a real-life goal in place to convert Mars’ extensive atmospheric carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. And, as of this past week, the NASA Perseverance Mars Rover has successfully done just that.

The Martian atmosphere is too thin and toxic for humans to breathe. Biosuits would need to be worn when outside of a research habitat, complete with portable oxygen tanks. Inside the habitat, oxygen would need to be continually recycled. But creating new oxygen to pressurize the habitat? Replenishing lost oxygen? Refilling those portable tanks? Filling the fuel tanks for a return trip to Earth? Where will future astronauts get this oxygen? The answer lies with MOXIE.

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What is MOXIE and what does it do?

MOXIE is a toaster-sized instrument aboard Perseverance. Its name is short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. MOXIE is made with nickel-alloy 3-D printed parts, NASA’s aerogel and wrapped in thin gold foil. All of this is to help it handle the super high heat it needs to extract oxygen. Temperatures inside MOXIE can reach up to about 1,470°F (800°C) as it filters through the carbon dioxide from Mars’ atmosphere.

Animated exploded view of NASA Perseverance Mars Rover's MOXIE instrument | Credit: NASA/JPL

Animated exploded view of NASA Perseverance Mars Rover’s MOXIE instrument | Credit: NASA/JPL

MOXIE is designed to separate oxygen out of the carbon-dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere. Martian air is composed of 96% of the deadly gas. Carbon dioxide is a molecule with two oxygen atoms connected to a single carbon atom. Using its internal high heat, MOXIE splits out a single oxygen atom from each carbon dioxide molecule. The resulting carbon monoxide is released back into the atmosphere. 

Chemical equation illustration of a carbon dioxide molecule splitting from heat to produce a single oxygen atom and a carbon monoxide molecule

Chemical equation illustration of a carbon dioxide molecule splitting from heat to produce a single oxygen atom and a carbon monoxide molecule

How much oxygen can MOXIE make?

Up until April 20, 2021, the answer to how much oxygen MOXIE could filter out of the Martian air was simply theoretical. The first of many tests resulted in about five grams of oxygen, which is enough to provide a human with about 10 minutes of breathable gas. The little test-size MOXIE is only designed to generate up to 10 grams per hour, though researchers intend to push the limits once all scheduled tests are completed. NASA expects a fully functioning model on a crewed mission on Mars to be 100 times bigger and provide enough oxygen for breathing and fuel.

What does this mean for NASA and space travel?

MOXIE’s successful oxygen extraction means we are one step closer to human travel through space! There are still many more experiments to perform to test the limits of the technology, but this initial good news is monumental. According to Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, MOXIE is the first step in allowing humans to “live off the land” on another planet. It also means that one day, The Martian may be a little less science fiction and stranded astronauts will have better tools available to survive. 

To learn more about MOXIE and Perseverance from NASA, check out their Mars Perseverance Rover informational site HERE.

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