NASA will send a system to extract oxygen from the Mars Atmosphere in 2020

NASA plans to make oxygen, a central ingredient of rocket fuel, on Mars early in the next decade.

Space agency officials on Thursday unveiled seven instruments they plan to put on a Martian rover that would launch in 2020, including two devices aimed at bigger future Mars missions.

MOXIE will produce about 22 grams (0.78 ounces) of oxygen per hour and will operate on at least 50 different Martian days during the course of the mission,

MOXIE — short for Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment — was selected from 58 instrument proposals submitted by research teams around the world. The experiment, currently scheduled to launch in the summer of 2020, is a specialized reverse fuel cell whose primary function is to consume electricity in order to produce oxygen on Mars, where the atmosphere is 96 percent carbon dioxide. If proven to work on the Mars 2020 mission, a MOXIE-like system could later be used to produce oxygen on a larger scale, both for life-sustaining activities for human travelers and to provide liquid oxygen needed to burn the rocket fuel for a return trip to Earth.

Separately Brookhaven National Laboratory scientists have discovered a new catalytic system for converting carbon dioxide to methanol. The new system offers significantly higher activity than other catalysts now in use and the new system could make it easier to get normally unreactive CO2 to participate in these reactions. The resulting catalyst converts CO2 to methanol more than a thousand times faster than plain copper particles, and almost 90 times faster than a common copper/zinc-oxide catalyst currently in industrial use.

MOXIE will be designed and built as what Hecht calls a “fuel cell run in reverse.” In a normal fuel cell, fuel is heated together with an oxidizer — often oxygen — producing electricity. In this case, however, electricity produced by a separate machine would be combined with carbon dioxide from the Martian air to produce oxygen and carbon monoxide in a process called solid oxide electrolysis.

“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.”

According to Hecht, a long-term plan for getting humans to Mars — and back — would look something like this: First, a small nuclear reactor would be sent to the Red Planet along with a scaled-up version of the MOXIE instrument. Over a couple of years, its oxygen tank would fill up in preparation for human visitors. Once the crew arrives, “they have their power source, they have their fuel, and the infrastructure for the mission is already in place,” Hecht says. “That’s the piece we’re after.”

Hecht adds that producing oxygen on the Martian surface is likely the simplest solution for a number of reasons. It would, for example, eliminate the difficulty and expense of sending liquid oxygen stores to Mars.

If all goes according to plan, the Mars 2020 mission, with MOXIE in tow, will launch in July 2020. Assuming a safe landing and deployment, Hecht hopes the MOXIE instrument will transform the future of Martian exploration by demonstrating that humans can live directly off the land, with as few resources as possible shipped in from Earth.

The $1.9 billion rover will include an experiment that will turn carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. William H. Gerstenmaier, an associate administrator for NASA, said the oxygen could then be used to make rocket fuel and for future astronauts to breathe. Taking fuel to Mars for return flights would be heavy and expensive.

The device, named Moxie, operates like an engine but in reverse, said Michael Hecht, the scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is running the test project. It will make about three-quarters of an ounce of oxygen an hour.

If it works, then a larger device — 100 times as big as Moxie — would be launched two years before astronauts go.

Background

Making return propellant on-site makes a Mars mission a lot easier. The technology is known as “In Situ Resources Utilization,” or “ISRU”. The easiest resource to make propellant from on Mars is the Martian atmosphere, which has the advantage of being available everywhere on Mars (no scouting or mining missions needed). Another possible resource is the polar ice.

The Martian atmosphere is extremely thin, and composed mostly of carbon dioxide. There are several technologies that have been demonstrated (on Earth only, so far) to start with carbon dioxide and make rocket fuel. One likely reaction is the Sabatier reaction (which requires hydrogen as well as carbon dioxide).

Another choice is directly electrolyzing CO2 into carbon monoxide (CO) and Oxygen, using a zirconia electrolysis medium.

There have been various experiments that show how fuel would be produced on Mars.

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