Can Oxygen Be Produced on Mars? MOXIE Will Find Out.
Kyle Maxey posted on August 05, 2014 |

NASA, Mars, Rover, Oxygen, ColonyLast week NASA selected the 16 instruments that will travel to Mars aboard its 2020 Rover. While all of these instruments will be critical to our understanding of the Red Planet, one apparatus will actually tell us whether we can produce oxygen from the planet’s CO2 rich atmosphere.

Called the Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment (MOXIE), the MIT-devised device will use electricity to separate the “O” from CO2.  Essentially a reverse fuel cell, MOXIE is a proof of concept experiment that could become the basis for future, large scale systems that would provide oxygen for human explorers. Beyond breathable O2, a MOXIE like system could also produce the liquid oxygen needed to fuel rockets bound for an Earth return.

Unlike fuel cells designed to work here on Earth MOXIE will be a “fuel cell run in reverse,” says Michael Hecht, MOXIE’s principle investigator. In a traditional fuel cell, fuel is heated in combination with an oxidizer to produce electricity. However on Mars, where the atmosphere is 96% CO2, electricity will be produced by a separate source. Using this electricity MOXIE will syphon carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and render it into oxygen and carbon monoxide.

“It’s a pretty exotic way to run a fuel cell on Earth,” Hecht says, “but on Mars if you want to run an engine, you don’t have oxygen. Over 75 percent of what you would have to carry to run an engine on Mars would be oxygen.”

Ultimately, Hecht and his team see MOXIE as the first step toward a much larger system. In an admittedly grand scheme a next-gen MOXIE system sporting a small nuclear reactor and oxygen container would land on the Martian surface. Over the course of some years the nuclear reactor would power a larger MOXIE-based instrument which would slowly fill an oxygen reservoir that could be used when astronauts finally do arrive.

Though MOXIE’s long-term vision is still decades from realization, the experimental precursor to a larger system should launch sometime in July of 2020. If everything goes according to plan engineers will know whether they have a blueprint for humanity’s first extra-terrestrial oxygen factory within a few months of landing.

Image Courtesy of MIT

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