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Out Of Thin Air: NASA Rover Makes Oxygen From Martian Atmosphere

After making the first powered flight on another world, NASA's Mars 2020 mission has managed another key first that could pave the way for future astronauts by making breathable oxygen out of the wispy Martian air.

NASA announced that an instrument aboard the rover had successfully extracted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on Mars and then electrochemically split oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules.

The Martian atmosphere is about 95% carbon dioxide. The remainder is mostly nitrogen and argon.

The feat, announced Wednesday, is considered vital to any long-term stay for humans on Mars, as bringing an ample supply of oxygen from Earth would likely prove impractical. It came ahead of a second successful test of NASA's Ingenuity helicopter after its historic maiden flight on Monday.

The second flight "reached new milestones of higher altitude, a longer hover and lateral flying," NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a tweet.

"MOXIE isn't just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world," Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations with NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement. She called it the first technology of its kind to help future missions "live off the land" of another planet.

The Perseverance rover used an instrument known as MOXIE, or Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, which superheated the carbon dioxide to cleave it chemically, producing about 5 grams of pure oxygen – about enough for an astronaut to breathe for 10 minutes, according to NASA.

"This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars," said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Engineers hope that MOXIE can be scaled up to produce enough oxygen for future human flights to Mars. A group of four astronauts on the red planet would require an estimated 1 metric ton of oxygen between them to last an entire year, MOXIE principal investigator Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in a NASA news release.

Oxygen produced on Mars could also be used in combination with rocket fuel to propel rockets returning to Earth. NASA estimates that 25 metric tons of oxygen would be needed for such a rocket carrying four astronauts. An industrial-size, MOXIE-style instrument for use on Mars might weigh about a metric ton, Hecht said last year.

On Monday, the twin-rotor Mars helicopter, Ingenuity – part of the Mars 2020 mission that includes the rover and the MOXIE instrument — became the first powered aircraft to fly on another planet.

The 4-pound Ingenuity rose 10 feet in the air, hovered briefly and landed back on the Martian surface without incident. The helicopter, which has an onboard camera, is still being tested, but more ambitious flights are scheduled as the mission progresses.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.