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Oxygen extracted from thin Mars air

Steve Gorman, April 25, 2021 3:00PM Reuters

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The Perseverance Mars rover takes a selfie with Ingenuity ahead of the helicopter’s first flight and MOXIE’s successful extraction of oxygen from the atmosphere. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/AFP media_cameraThe Perseverance Mars rover takes a selfie with Ingenuity ahead of the helicopter’s first flight and MOXIE’s successful extraction of oxygen from the atmosphere. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/AFP

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NASA has scored another first on its latest mission to Mars: converting carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into pure, breathable oxygen.

The extraction* of oxygen, literally out of thin air on Mars, was achieved by an experimental device on-board Perseverance, the six-wheeled rover that landed on the Red Planet on February 18 after a seven-month journey from Earth.

In its first activation*, the toaster-sized device called MOXIE — short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment — produced about 5g of oxygen, the equivalent* to about 10 minutes’ worth of breathing for an astronaut, NASA said.

The feat marked the first experimental extraction of a natural resource from the environment of another planet for direct use by humans.

media_cameraThe MOXIE instrument is lowered into the Perseverance rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before the Mars mission. Picture: Ryan Lannom/NASA/JPL-CALTECH/AFP

“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

She called it the first technology of its kind to help future missions “live off the land” of another planet.

The instrument works through electrolysis, which uses extreme heat to separate oxygen atoms* from molecules* of carbon dioxide, which accounts for about 95 per cent of the atmosphere on Mars.

The remaining 5 per cent of Mars’ atmosphere, which is only about 1 per cent as dense* Earth’s, consists mostly of molecular* nitrogen and argon. There are only tiny traces of oxygen on Mars.

But an abundant* supply is considered critical to eventual human exploration of the Red Planet, both as a sustainable source of breathable air for astronauts and as a necessary ingredient for rocket fuel to fly them home.

The volumes required for launching rockets into space from Mars are particularly daunting*.

According to NASA, getting four astronauts off the Martian surface would take about 7 metric tons* of rocket fuel, combined with 25 metric tons of oxygen.

Making Oxygen on Mars with MOXIE (NASA)

MOXIE principal investigator Michael Hecht, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said transporting a one-ton oxygen-conversion machine to Mars was more practical than trying to haul 25 tons of oxygen in tanks from Earth.

He said astronauts living and working on Mars would require about one metric ton of oxygen between them to last an entire year.

MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10g of oxygen an hour, and scientists plan to run the machine at least another nine times over the next two years under different conditions and speeds, NASA said.

The first oxygen conversion run came a day after NASA achieved the historic first controlled powered flight of an aircraft on another planet with the successful takeoff and landing of miniature helicopter Ingenuity on Mars.

Like MOXIE, the twin-rotor chopper hitched a ride to Mars with Perseverance, which is on a mission to search for fossilised traces of ancient life that may have flourished on Mars billions of years ago.

HELICOPTER TAKES FLIGHT AGAIN

media_cameraNASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter takes off and lands in its second successful flight. Picture: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/AFP

Ingenuity has made a second successful flight on Mars, soaring even higher and longer than the first.

The 1.8kg chopper hovered longer and also flew side to side this time, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California in the US.

It achieved the intended altitude* of 5m and even accelerated sideways 2m. This flight, on April 22, lasted 52 seconds — 13 seconds longer than the first one.

The success came just three days after Ingenuity made the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet when it lifted off 3m. The helicopter carried a piece of wing fabric from the Wright Flyer that made similar history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in the US, in 1903.

Flight controllers had to wait four hours before learning the outcome of the second test flight. Like it did on the first flight, the helicopter sent back a black and white photo showing its shadow against the dusty, rock-strewn Mars surface in an area now known as Wright Brothers Field.

media_cameraThis combination picture shows Ingenuity hovering over the Mars surface in its first flight (left) and a 1901 image of a glider in flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (right). Picture: AFP/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Library of Congress

“It sounds simple, but there are many unknowns regarding how to fly a helicopter on Mars,” said Ingenuity’s chief pilot, Havard Grip. “That’s why we’re here — to make these unknowns known.”

One of the challenges is the planet’s extremely thin atmosphere, which is just 1 per cent that of Earth’s.

NASA plans up to three more test flights in the next 10 days, venturing higher each time with more complicated acrobatics.

– Additional reporting by Marcia Dunn, AP

GLOSSARY

  • extraction: the action of removing something
  • activation: to make something work
  • equivalent: equal to or the same as
  • atoms: the smallest particles of a chemical element that can exist
  • molecules: groups of atoms bonded together
  • dense: thick
  • molecular: to do with molecules
  • abundant: plentiful
  • daunting: seems to be difficult or intimidating
  • metric ton: one metric ton equals 1000kg
  • altitude: height above the surface

EXTRA READING

Mars helicopter takes off on first flight

Mars helicopter ready to take flight

Mars rover’s parachute carried secret message

Make some noise Mars, we’re listening

NASA rover touches down on Mars

QUICK QUIZ

  1. What is the name of the device that extracted the oxygen?
  2. How much oxygen did it extract?
  3. How long could an astronaut breathe using the amount of oxygen extracted by the device?
  4. Carbon dioxide makes up what percentage of Mars’ atmosphere?
  5. An abundant supply of oxygen is needed on Mars for what two reasons?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Information poster
Create an information poster about either MOXIE or Ingenuity. Include a picture of the technology; an explanation of what it is; what it has done so far; what else it is expected to do on this mission; and the ultimate long-term aim of its mission. Organise your poster in an attractive and user-friendly layout with appropriate sub-headings.

Time: allow 40+ minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science

2. Extension
Find out what Earth’s atmosphere is made of. Create two pie charts that show the makeup of Mars’ atmosphere and Earth’s atmosphere.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity 
Curriculum Links: English; Science

VCOP ACTIVITY
Down-Level It
When you up-level a sentence, you do things to it to improve it: make it more interesting, or more complex.

But sometimes, when we read something it can be too complex and we don’t understand it very well. You ask someone to explain it to you, they do (in a simpler way) and you think, well why didn’t they just say that?

Go through the article and find a sentence or two that is complex, or hard to read.

Ask an adult what it means, or try and look some of the words up in the glossary.

Once you know what it means, see if you can rewrite it in a simpler way- down-level it.

Make sure you don’t change the meaning of the sentence in any way though.

Extra Reading in space