Machine on Mars Makes Oxygen out of (Very) Thin Air

Sep 13, 2023

What Makes up the Atmosphere on Earth and Mars?

Humans can’t breathe the air on Mars. But a two-year NASA experiment just ended that might change this. 122 grams of oxygen (O₂), the vital gas on which life on Earth depends, was produced on Mars. That's about as much as a small dog needs to survive for 10 hours.

The experiment was a smashing success, scientists say. 

Trudy Kortes is a NASA director. She stated that "we’ve come one step closer to a future in which astronauts ‘live off the land’ on the Red Planet.” 

This feat was achieved by the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). It is a device about the size of a microwave oven. It’s carried by the Perseverance Rover. The machine started making small amounts of O₂ shortly after the craft landed on Mars in February 2021.    

It did so by splitting carbon dioxide (CO₂) molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide (CO). CO₂ makes up 96% of Mars's atmosphere. The machine expelled the CO as waste. It measured the amounts and purity of the newly made O₂ too.

Scientists hope to develop a bigger unit to convert large amounts of CO₂ into storable liquid O₂. It could be used to make breathable air for Martian explorers. It could also be used to create rocket fuel for return trips to Earth. That could slash the cost of transporting enough fuel for round trips. 

Future Mars missions still face hurdles. Beating the planet’s frigid temperatures is one. Low atmospheric pressure is another. The onslaught of radiation from an atmosphere without an ozone layer is an issue too.

Michael Hecht is MOXIE's principal investigator at MIT. Hecht told CNN that many crucial Mars mission technologies have yet to be developed. "I’m very pleased MOXIE was first,” he said. 

Reflect: If you were tasked with exploring another planet, what would you want to know about it before you went?

Based on information included only in the infographic, the reader can conclude that _______. (Common Core RI.5.7; RI.6.7)
a. a two-year experiment to create oxygen on Mars just ended after producing 122 grams of the vital gas
b. Carbon dioxide makes up 96% of Mars’ atmosphere
c. missions to Mars face obstacles such as extreme cold temperatures, low atmospheric pressure, and constant radiation
d. Earth's atmosphere is over 100 times denser than Mars' atmosphere
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