One Step Closer to One Small Step for Man

In an event that should be much, much bigger news than it is right now, NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars converted carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. This historic and scientifically amazing feat took place this past Tuesday (April 20), and created 5.4 grams of oxygen, which is enough to allow a person to breathe for about 10 minutes.


The MOXIE instrument is lowered into the rover in the clean room.

I know, right? I didn’t know this technology existed, but then again I’m a lawyer, not an astrophysicist. But apparently this technology does indeed exist. The tool used by Perseverance is known as the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE (pictured). The MOXIE is about the size of a toaster, and needed 12,500 seconds (which for those of you who don’t want to do the math is 208 minutes, or 3 hours and 28 minutes) to convert CO2 in Mars’s atmosphere into 5.37 grams of breathable oxygen. And I know that almost four hours to produce ten minutes’ worth of oxygen seems like a long time, but the first two hours of that time was a warm up; the rest of the time the machine actually converting the CO2 to oxygen.

Scientists estimate that MOXIE is capable of producing approximately 10 grams of oxygen per hour once it is in full swing and operating at its normal capacity. Mars’s atmosphere is about 96% carbon dioxide, which will render a person dead faster than you can say “Total Recall is overrated.” Well, not quite that fast, but certainly faster than you could actually watch Total Recall.

Use and Scientific Significance

The next logical step is storing the created oxygen. If oxygen can be stored, it would not only allow humans to breathe, but it would provide invaluable oxygen needed to create the necessary combustion for an internal combustion engine to lift a rocket off the surface of Mars so that any folks up there could get back home to Earth.

The down side is that NASA believes 55,000 pounds of oxygen would be needed to boost a rocket off the surface. That’s 24,947.58 kilograms, or 24,947,580 grams. At the optimal rate of 10 grams of oxygen per hour, it would take the MOXIE almost 2.5 million hours to produce enough oxygen for a blast off. That’s over a million days, which is over 2,800 years. I suppose we can hope that the technology improves or capacity is increased, or whatever science thing needs to be done to make that feasible happens.

But either way, this is historic. This is like something straight out of a sci-fi plotline. Every single movie, television show, book, or other medium that includes Earthlings going to Mars has to explain, in some way, how humans can breath and how a rocket can leave Mars. This technology allows a real-world answer. The moon landing happened in 1969. People born in 1889 could reasonably have still been around at the ripe old age of 80 to see this happen. I was born in 1989, and while I never dreamed I would live to see people or even equipment returning from Mars to Earth, this technology gives me hope that I’ll see it in my lifetime. Maybe I’ll be like the old 19th century folks who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. I can only hope to be so lucky.

Toy Story - Buzz Lightyear - To infinity and Beyond animated gif

For a more detailed account (as I said, I’m not a scientist, so I wanted to keep this relatively shallow so I could be confident what I said was correct), check out NASA’s official story on the issue. After that, enjoy your day and try not to annoy too many people by saying “to infinity, and beyond!” too much.

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