Slowly but surely NASA is moving toward the accumulation of technologies which will allow humans to go to Mars, spend time there in a constructive manner and return to Earth.
The Mars 2020 Rover will test one of those technologies, the use of carbon dioxide on Mars to create oxygen, oxygen for the astronauts to breathe and to create the fuel needed for the crew to launch from the Martian surface for the return flight.
JPL and MIT’s Haystack Observatory will collaborate to design, build and manage an oxygen manufacturing machine known as MOXIE, an acronym for Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment.
The MIT team is led by Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE instrument and assistant director for research management at the MIT Haystack Observatory.
NASA explains how MOXIE will work:
“. . . 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.”
The theory behind this process is so proven, so well established that it might seem unnecessary to test it. Hecht disagrees.
“We want to invest in a simple prototype before we are convinced. We’ve never run a factory on Mars. But this is what we’re doing; we’re running a prototype factory to see what problems we might come up against.”
MOXIE is small in comparison to the size of the oxygen generators required to meet the needs of Martian explorers. The unit is about the size of a car battery or 1% of the generators NASA believes will be necessary.
NASA describes how a scaled up MOXIE would fit into the Mars’ exploration plan:
“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.”
Plans for fuel factories on Mars have been discussed since at least the 1970’s and it is encouraging that concrete steps are being taken to actually make them a reality. But it is also a reminder of where we are in the process of getting to Mars and how much farther we have to go.
Hecht is taking the long view.
“I was thinking about [President John F.] Kennedy’s speech,” Hecht adds, “when he talked about going to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. And I was really struck by what came after that quote, the part that nobody remembers. He said, ‘Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.’ That just said it. We will get to Mars in 20 years when we are willing to embrace that challenge.”
Incredibly the call to achieve something at the utmost limit of our abilities spoken in September 1962 still resonates with exploring minded people today.