NASA’s next Mars rover could help humans get a foothold on the Red Planet.
Most of the seven instruments for the six-wheeled robot, which is scheduled to launch toward Mars in 2020, are designed to help scientists identify and sample rocks that may harbor evidence of past Mars life, NASA officials announced Thursday (July 31). The rover will cache such samples for a potential return to Earth in the future.
Breathable air and rocket fuel
The instrument is known as MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resources Utilization Experiment). It will pull carbon dioxide from the thin Martian atmosphere, which is composed of about 96 percent CO2, and turn it into pure oxygen and carbon monoxide, said Michael Hecht of MIT, the instrument’s principal investigator.
“This is essentially a fuel cell run in reverse,” he said. (Hecht added that CO2 is often a product of fuel cells, which generate electricity from fuels such as hydrogen.)
NASA has made demonstrating this capability a key priority, as the agency aims to put boots on Mars in the 2030s and wants its pioneering human outpost to be as self-sufficient as possible. (Decreasing or eliminating the need for oxygen resupply from Earth would also cut costs, of course.)
In a future manned mission, astronauts would breathe some of the oxygen produced on the Red Planet. But much of the gas would be stored for use as an oxidizer, helping burn the rocket fuel that would launch spacecraft from the surface of Mars back to Earth, Hecht said.
Future experiments may even attempt to generate rocket fuel itself — methane, for example — from Martian materials, NASA officials said.
“But the first step, before we go pursue all of these things — let’s take one that’s fairly simple, that can fit on this package, can fit on the rover,” said Bill Gersteinmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters.
“Let’s see what the efficiencies are,” he added. “Let’s understand — is there something we’re really missing in the Martian environment that drives this a different way? Let’s see what we can do with oxygen first, and then we’ll do the plans for the other pieces as they fit together.”