For the first time in human history, oxygen has been created out of thin Martian air.
NASA announced that a small instrument aboard the Perseverance rover on Mars — named MOXIE, short for Mars OXygen In-situ resource utilization Experiment — has produced around 5 grams of oxygen, enough to fill about a one-gallon bottle. And according to the lead scientist behind the effort, this small amount of breathable air could go a long way toward making a human mission to Mars a reality.
“I've been using the expression ‘a small breath for man, a giant leap for humankind,'” said MIT’s Michael Hecht, the principle investigator for MOXIE.
Scientists switched MOXIE on for the first time this week. Hecht said there were some tense moments as he and the team waited to see evidence that the toaster-sized instrument had been able to isolate oxygen from Mars’ thin, carbon dioxide atmosphere as designed.
“There must have been 50 or more people on a Zoom call waiting for the data," said Hecht, a Dorchester native. "And [at first] it didn't come. The head of the project, the head of the mission, was on the phone. What's going on with the data? Why is that coming down from Mars?”
When it arrived, it confirmed what Hecht and others had hoped to see.
“We produced a relatively small amount of oxygen that would keep you or me alive or in normal activity for about 10 minutes,” he said.
That might not sound like much, but Hecht said it’s the longer-term implications of the accomplishment that have him so excited. Using "native resources” from Mars — in this case carbon dioxide — will be critical to any future mission to the red planet led by humans.
“For that first human mission, we could practically bring enough oxygen to keep the crew alive," he said. "That's about a ton."
But oxygen is also a critical component in rocket fuel. And it will take a whole lot of rocket fuel to power the trip home.
“To bring enough oxygen to get them off the surface of the planet?" Hecht said. "That's about 25 tons. That gets to be a whole lot harder.”
What MOXIE has now shown is that the mission might not have to bring that much oxygen. We now know it's possible to make oxygen on Mars. And if scientists like Hecht and others can take the next step and figure out how to do it on a larger scale?
“That makes it possible for us to do ambitious missions in the future — to send our kids or our grandkids to establish a real base of research on a place like Mars in the future,” Hecht said. “And that's momentous. And maybe we're a little piece of that.”
LISTEN: Hecht discusses the name MOXIE