Oxygen-producing technology developed in part at MIT could not only help the first human visitors on Mars to breathe—it may be the key to bringing them back home.
NASA recently announced plans for its next Mars rover mission, scheduled to start its voyage in 2020. MOXIE—Mars Oxygen In situ resource utilization Experiment—will be one of seven instruments to travel on the Mars 2020 rover. The MOXIE system is designed to produce oxygen on Mars, an element in short supply on the Red Planet, where the atmosphere is 96 percent carbon dioxide.
Michael Hecht, principal investigator of MOXIE and assistant director for research management at the MIT Haystack Observatory, points out that oxygen is needed on Mars not only to support human life, but also to power engines. Currently, spacecraft carry their own tanks when traveling to oxygen-free atmospheres, but that’s not feasible on the Mars trip. “Over 75 percent of what you would have to carry to run an engine on Mars would be oxygen,” says Hecht.
Instead, the MOXIE team will build a “fuel cell in reverse”—a system that combines electricity and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen and carbon monoxide, serving as an oxygen factory. “When we send humans to Mars, we will want them to return safely, and to do that they need a rocket to lift off the planet. That’s one of the largest pieces of the mass budget that we would need to send astronauts there and back. So if we can eliminate that piece by making the oxygen on Mars, we’re way ahead of the game.” Hecht believes it’s reasonable to think that NASA could send humans on a round-trip to Mars in 20 years.
MOXIE is being developed at the Haystack Observatory in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Former astronaut and professor of the practice in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics Jeff Hoffman and associate professor of nuclear science Bilge Yildiz PhD ’03, are also taking part in the project.