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NASA produces breathable oxygen on Mars
The United States has become the first country to produce breathable oxygen on another planet. One of the instruments on board the Perseverance vehicle is a device designed to test whether fuel and breathable air can be produced from materials available on the red planet. A day after this mission made history by making the first powered flight on another planet using the Ingenuity drone, a device called Moxie installed in the entrails of the vehicle managed to produce about five grams of oxygen, which would allow an astronaut breathe for 10 minutes, according to NASA.
The atmosphere of Mars is unbreathable. It is composed of 96% toxic carbon dioxide. Moxie is a box the size of a toaster, designed to absorb carbon dioxide and break it down inside by performing an electrolysis process at around 800 degrees that produces practically pure oxygen molecules and carbon monoxide as the main waste.
The main use for this oxygen is as fuel for rockets back to Earth, although NASA is also considering using it so that future astronauts on Mars can breathe. The Moxie is just one proof that it is possible to produce oxygen on this planet. To return to Earth a rocket would need 25 tons of oxygen. But it would also need another seven tons of other fuel, which could be methane.
How would methane be produced? “One option is to generate it from the hydrogen in the frozen water that is in the Martian subsoil and the atmospheric carbon dioxide,” explains Jorge Pla-García, a researcher at the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid and a member of the NASA mission on Mars. “That ice water could be used to drink, irrigate crops and make fuel,” he details.
One of the options that NASA is considering for future manned missions is to send an instrument similar to the Moxie, but of much larger dimensions so that it could produce oxygen in large quantities.
“The Moxie milestone is as important as the Ingenuity one, because it opens a new path in Martian exploration by demonstrating the ability to generate an essential element both for human respiration and for the synthesis of fuel on Mars and even to make water”, explains Albert Fairén, a researcher at the Center for Astrobiology.
Pure oxygen is toxic to humans. This must be mixed with other elements. And this is where nitrogen comes in, which is about 3% of Martian air, explains Fairén. “NASA’s first manned space flights had pure oxygen atmospheres,” he explains. “The flammability problems of these atmospheres, as well as health problems for the astronauts derived from the formation of gas bubbles in the blood, caused it to begin to change. In the Skylab it was already 75% oxygen and 25% nitrogen. The Russian MIR space station, the Soyuz spacecraft and the NASA shuttles already had standard terrestrial atmospheres, and that is how it is today on the International Space Station: water is used there, which by means of hydrolysis decomposes into O₂ and H₂, and that oxygen it is released into the cabin, where it mixes with the rest of the gases to create an atmosphere similar to that of the Earth, with 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen”, he points out.
Perseverance will continue to test to produce oxygen in different weather conditions and at different levels of purity. The rover is also equipped with a radar capable of detecting ice in the subsoil.