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Can We Breathe on Mars?

Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) is an exploration technology investigation that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide. Photo credit: NASA

Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) is an exploration technology investigation that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide. Photo credit: NASA

Mars has fascinated us since we first saw that brilliant red-tinged light in the sky. As we've learned more about the "red planet" many experts, including former astronaut Buzz Aldrin and scientists Neil deGrasse Tyson and the late Stephen Hawking, have supported Mars as a prime candidate for human colonization. While Mars is similar to Earth in many ways, one difference could be a real deal-breaker:  With an atmosphere that is over 96 percent carbon dioxide, how could we breathe? NASA is prepared to apply a little "moxie" to answer that question!

MOXIE or the "Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment" is part of NASA's Mars 2020 Mission that will help us learn if we can use Mars' thin carbon dioxide atmosphere to manufacture oxygen to not only breathe, but to also use as fuel.

Photo credit: NASA

Photo credit: NASA

Scientists have known for quite some time how to manufacture or recycle oxygen for space missions, like on the International Space Station (ISS). Electrolysis of water is the main method used to generate oxygen on the ISS. Water (H2O) is split into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). The oxygen is vented into the cabin air system, and the explosive hydrogen is vented out into space. But on Mars, water is scarce, and mostly frozen, so conventional electrolysis is not the answer.

Photo credit: NASA

Photo credit: NASA

Carbon dioxide contains a single carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. Recently, researchers at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena found that molecular oxygen can be produced by crashing carbon dioxide into gold foil at high speed. Gold cannot oxidize (combine with oxygen) and instead strips the oxygen atoms from the carbon dioxide. This discovery helped lead to the solid oxide electrolysis (SOXE) technology that will be used during MOXIE.

The MOXIE module is about the size of a car battery and is incorporated as part of NASA's 2020 Mars Rover. Over the course of its mission, it will test whether this technology can effectively produce oxygen on site (in-situ) at a rate that's more effective and cost efficient than transporting it from earth. If successful, this experiment could be an important building block of planned Mars exploration by astronauts.

While producing enough oxygen for astronauts to breathe on Mars is critical, according to NASA, the more important, and less obvious need for in-situ oxygen production is for fuel. Initial missions to Mars are planned as round trips, and liquid oxygen, generated on Mars, would be the ideal fuel. NASA estimates that an oxygen generator 100 times the size of MOXIE would be needed to produce the necessary volume of oxygen to fuel the round trip.

If this is all ringing some pop culture bells, it's probably because MOXIE is a precursor to the "oxygenator" used by the fictional Mark Watney as portrayed by Matt Damon in the popular film "The Martian." Like a tree, MOXIE will inhale the CO2 that comprises 96 percent of the Martian air, and exhales oxygen, but without water as a reactant.

As 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, returning to the moon and beyond is again on America’s radar. In fact, NASA hopes to launch a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. But before that can happen, we need to make sure there's air to breathe. MOXIE will help answer the question, "Can we breathe on Mars?"

Learn more about humankinds' work to address lung health-related space travel obstacles.

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Related Topic: Science


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