How This Lunchbox-sized Machine Makes a “Tree’s Worth” of Oxygen on Mars

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Anyone who’s seen “Total Recall” can tell you that Mars is dangerously devoid of oxygen. If humans ever hope to live long-term on the Red Planet, they’ll need a little something to breathe and MIT sounds like it’s making progress in that area.

The institute this week provided an update on its Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE. It said the machine, which is roughly the size of a lunchbox, has been able to reliably produce oxygen in many different environmental scenarios. In its current size, MOXIE is pumping out about six grams of O2 per hour, which MIT said is roughly the equivalent of a “modest tree” here on Earth.

MIT has imagined a day when a much larger MOXIE could match the oxygen output of a whole forest’s worth of trees. That could sustain operations on Mars and also create enough oxygen for the rocket rides back to Earth.

What makes MOXIE such a sustainable option for oxygen creation is its ability to take resources that Mars has in abundance and use them to create the air we can breathe. The machine has been transforming Mars’ carbon dioxide into oxygen, which MIT said is the first instance of repurposing resources from another planet.

First MOXIE pulls in the Mars air and filters out contaminants. Then the air is pressurized and passed through an instrument that divides the air into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide. The oxygen ions then split off and recombine to form pure breathable air for MOXIE to release.

For now, MOXIE can only run intermittently and produce a relatively small amount of oxygen. But if a larger version that can run continuously is possible, it would go a long way toward supporting life on Mars.

Image Credit: MIT

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