Mars Colonization Edges Closer Thanks to MIT's Oxygen Factory

Scientists at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are building an instrument, which will turn carbon dioxide on Mars into oxygen, with NASA planning to use it on their 2020 mission to Mars, according to information provided by the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

MOXIE (the Mars Oxygen In-situ Resource Utilisation Experiment), turns carbon dioxide into oxygen in a number of stages. Firstly, it gathers carbon dioxide from its surroundings and isolates the oxygen atoms, combining them to make O2. Then the gases are diffused back into the air together with the by-product of carbon monoxide. The instrument is planned to be taken to the red planet along with a new rover in 2020.

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Currently, the prototype is able to produce up to 20 grams of oxygen per hour and is can operate for 51 earth days. In 2030, the scientists are planning to send a bigger instrument to Mars, which could potentially produce up to two kilograms of oxygen per hour.

NASA ultimately wants to send an empty rocket carrying a larger version of MOXIE to Mars, which will be used to fill the rocket with enough oxygen (it will take about a year and a half) to supply the astronauts with breathable air on their journey back to Earth. This will considerably reduce the cost of travel to Mars. The rocket launch will probably require several dozen tons of oxygen, said Jeffrey Hoffman to Business Insider.

"To get 30 tons of oxygen on the surface of Mars, you need to launch 300 to 450 tons of propellant from the surface of the Earth into Earth orbit,” he explained.

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A ton of oxygen costs approximately $10 million to launch, so using MOXIE would provide savings of roughly $3 to $4.5 billion. In total, NASA estimates the cost of sending astronauts to Mars at between $80 and $100 billion.

"Now it is probably that launch costs will come down somewhat through efforts of SpaceX and other launch companies, but the cost of launching all this oxygen is still huge, which is why producing it on the surface of Mars can make an expedition more affordable," said Hoffman.

The atmosphere on Mars consists of 96% carbon dioxide and only 0.2% oxygen. The Earth’s atmosphere, by comparison, contains about 21% oxygen. MOXIE is expected to provide future missions to Mars with oxygen and fuel.

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