NASA will include MIT’s MOXIE experiment on the Mars 2020 rover mission to study how to create oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere.   Image © NASA

Key among the instruments on the Mars 2020 rover, is an MIT-led payload known as MOXIE, which will play a leading role in paving the way for human exploration on Mars. If proven to work, a MOXIE-like system could later be used to produce oxygen on a larger scale.

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.

Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE instrument and assistant director for research management at the MIT Haystack Observatory, said:

“Human exploration of Mars will be a seminal event for the next generation, the same way the moon landing mission was for my generationI welcome this opportunity to move us closer to that vision.

It’s a pretty exotic way to run a fuel cell on Earth, 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. That’s the piece we’re after.”

Whenever the first NASA astronauts arrive on Mars, they will likely have MIT to thank for the oxygen they breathe — and for the oxygen needed to burn rocket fuel that will launch them back home to Earth.

Mars 2020 rover

Mars 2020 rover. Credit NASA

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