NASA has a new plan to overcome one of the biggest hurdles with colonizing Mars.
The agency plans to use the red planet’s own atmosphere to create oxygen when it lands a rover for the Mars 2020 mission, says Robert Lightfoot, acting NASA chief administrator.
The plan includes bringing microbial life to Mars and using an MIT device called MOXIE to have the organisms create oxygen and harvest it for breathing.
‘The next lander that is going to Mars, Mars 2020, has an experiment where we are going to try and actually generate oxygen out of the atmosphere on Mars, clearly that’s for human capability down the road,’ Lightfoot told Futurism.
NASA first came up with the plan in 2014 when it first unveiled the Mars 2020 Rover.
MOXIE – called the Mars Oxygen In situ resource utilization Experiment – was selected from 58 instrument proposals submitted by research teams around the world.
The process is a reverse fuel cell that entails transporting microbial life – such as bacteria or algae – from Earth to Mars.
The organisms would then use Martian soil as fuel to pump out oxygen, which could then be harvested and used for breathing.
It would eliminate the need to send liquid oxygen stores to Mars.
Additionally, it could also be used to make rocket fuel foe return flights back to Earth, offsetting what would be one of the biggest costs of transferring humans back to earth.
MIT is working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to design MOXIE, taking the lead on mission architecture and plan operations on the surface of Mars, while NASA will lead design and development of the payload.
In typical fuel cells, fuel is heated together with an oxidizer (usually oxygen) to produce electricity.
For this reverse fuel cell, 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.
‘It’s a pretty exotic way to run a fuel cell on Earth, but on Mars if you want to run an engine, you don’t have oxygen,’ Michael Hecht, principal investigator of the MOXIE instrument and assistant director for research management at the MIT Haystack Observatory, said.
‘Over 75 percent of what you would have to carry to run an engine on Mars would be oxygen.’
Lab experiments have already shown it’s possible, and if MOXIE is proven to work on the red planet, such a system could later be introduced on a larger scale to support human breathing and fuel trips back and fourth between the two planets.
Hecht described a long-term plan for getting humans to Mars and back that includes sending a small nuclear reactor along with a scaled-up version of the MOXIE instrument to Mars.
Over a couple of years, its oxygen tank would fill up in preparation for human visitors, and once the crew arrives, he said ‘they have their power source, they have their fuel, and the infrastructure for the mission is already in place – that’s the piece we’re after.’
The plan serves as an early alternative to terraforming Mars, which could take thousands of years if even possible at all.
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