It is a fact that in little or more time, manned missions will be sent to Mars. Mart is millions of kilometres away from the Earth, and it isn’t economically viable the constant sending of materials, food, water, breathable air, or fuel, to its surface. For this reason, the production of basic resources, among which is oxygen, is necessary from the planet Mars itself.
However, Mars has a very thin atmosphere, with a surface pressure a hundred times smaller than the one of the Earth. Moreover, Mars’ atmosphere is composed of 96% of carbon dioxide, and only 0.1% of oxygen. In comparison, in the terrestrial atmosphere, there is 21% of oxygen.
The rover Perseverance
Perseverance is a rover (similar to Curiosity) that landed on the Martian atmosphere in February 2021. Its mission has as a goal the detection of microbian life in the red planet. However, Perseverance is equipped with a toaster-sized dice, designed to test if breathable oxygen can be produced from the atmosphere of Mars.
This system, named MOXIE (Mars OXygen In-Situ Experiment), collects the abundant CO2 from the atmosphere, compresses it, and it subjects it to temperatures of 800ºC, to produce oxygen using a process called electrolysis (by which the components of a molecule are separated using electricity).
MOXIE has a power of 300 watts and has a production rate of about 10 grams per hour. However, a manned mission to Mars would need oxygen generators 100 times bigger than the instrument equipped on the rover Perseverance. This one is only a small test that has demonstrated that it is possible to produce breathable oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere, and that will let us see the effect of Martian dust on the device.
Utilization of the produced oxygen
As I have previously explained, oxygen on Mars is of great importance, and it could be used in two principal ways:
- In the first place, the produced oxygen could be provided to the inhabitants of the Martian colony to be able to breathe in a secure way. In addition, we would have to find a way of recycling the most oxygen possible, as it is nowadays done in the International Spatial Station.
- In the second place, an equally important, there is the option of using oxygen as fuel for rockets. This is really important as rockets need an enormous quantity of fuel to go from Mars to the Earth (and vice-versa). The future inhabitants of Mars will need to produce fuel on Mars in order to be able to return to Earth, or for other precise uses.