In a high-stakes mission that could last five years, NASA wants to take astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.
However, transporting a sufficient amount of oxygen and fuel on a spacecraft to support the mission anywhere near that time period is not currently viable.
The way NASA intends to solve this problem is by implementing MOXIE or Mars Oxygen in Situ Resource Utilization Experiment .
This system is in the testing phase on the Mars Perseverance rover, launched in July. The device will convert carbon dioxide, which makes up 96% of the red planet’s gas, into oxygen.
On Mars, oxygen is only 0.13% of the atmosphere, compared to 21% of the Earth’s atmosphere.
How does MOXIE work?
Scientists at the University of Washington in St. Louis claims that now he could have come up with another technique that could complete MOXIE.
The MOXIE system essentially produces oxygen just like a tree – by pumping Martian air with a pump and using an electrochemical process to separate two oxygen atoms from each molecule of carbon dioxide.
The experimental technique proposed by Vijay Ramani and his colleagues uses a completely different resource – salt water from the lakes below the Martian surface .
Most of the water known to exist on Mars is ice – both at the poles and in the middle latitudes of the planet.
And more recent research has found additional evidence of the lake and revealed a number of smaller salt ponds nearby.
“The presence of salt water is fortuitous, because the freezing point of the water decreases. Our process takes water and divides it into hydrogen and oxygen, ”said Ramani.
However, the method proposed in the new paper assumes that these salt waters are readily available on Mars, said Michael Hecht, NASA’s lead researcher for MOXIE.
“There was no substantial evidence of salt water deposits and, although there is probably some in frozen form, I do not expect to find it in liquid form,” Hecht said in an email.
“What the authors ignore is that although the melting point could be -70 degrees C, the freezing point on Mars is also around -70 degrees C, so if these liquid salts would there would eventually evaporate (more precisely, the sublime).
Ramani described their research project as an “initial foray” – his team had specialized in electrolysis of seawater.
“We are not funded by NASA or any space-related program, but if we get enough traction with this work, then we hope to propose this in the future as a complement to MOXIE and other systems.”
NASA’s MOXIE team will study how the small, toaster-sized version works on the Perseverance rover and apply the lessons learned to developing a larger, more powerful system for a manned mission.
The experiment will help researchers find out how a number of environmental factors, including dust storms, winds and sand, and the temperature of carbon dioxide, could affect MOXIE.
Scientists also need to know how radiation could impact its software.
A large-scale MOXIE system on Mars could be slightly larger than a household stove and weigh about 1,000 kilograms – almost as much as Perseverance itself.
Work is underway to develop a prototype for one in the near future, according to NASA .