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MIT to test making oxygen on Mars

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August 3, 2014

Subsystems on the MOXIE instrument (Image: NASA)

Subsystems on the MOXIE instrument (Image: NASA)

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Oxygen is such an abundant resource on Earth that we rarely think about it unless we get locked in a cupboard. However, for space engineers, the question of how to get enough of the vital gas is constant, frustrating problem. To help future explorers of the Red Planet get enough oxygen for life support and powering spacecraft, NASA has included MIT’s MOXIE experiment on the Mars 2020 mission to study how to make oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere.

Sending a manned mission to Mars not only involves technical problems far beyond anything previously attempted, but also logistical problems equivalent to that of a small war stretched across a hundred million miles of space. Many tons of spares, food, water, fuel, and oxygen would need to be transported to keep the astronauts alive and many times more fuel would be needed to transport it all.

Previously, this wasn't as great a problem. When the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, they carried everything they needed for their journey. On Mars, that may not be practical unless you want a spacecraft the size of a small aircraft carrier. Instead, scientists and engineers are exploring ways that future missions could live off the land when they arrive on the Red Planet.

"When we send humans to Mars, we will want them to return safely, and to do that they need a rocket to lift off the planet’” says Michael Hecht of MIT's Haystack Observatory. “That’s one of the largest pieces of the mass budget that we would need to send astronauts there and back. So if we can eliminate that piece by making the oxygen on Mars, we’re way ahead of the game."

MIT’s Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment (MOXIE) is one possible answer. Developed in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it’s based on the fact that the Martian atmosphere, though extremely thin, is composed of 96 percent carbon dioxide, which means its a vast potential source of oxygen for future explorers and settlers. Essentially, MOXIE is a fuel cell in reverse. Instead of generating electricity by using oxygen to burn a fuel, it uses a process called solid oxide electrolysis , where electricity is employed to split carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon monoxide.

This process would see Martian air pumped into the unit through a dust filter and pressurized before being passed into a fuel cell. At high temperatures, some ceramic oxides act as oxygen ion conductors. In the fuel cell, a thin, non-porous disc of this ceramic separates two porous electrodes. One electrode acts as the cathode and the other as the anode. Carbon dioxide passes through the cathode and when it comes into contact with the ceramic, the interaction of electricity and the ceramic causes the carbon dioxide to split into oxygen and carbon monoxide. The oxygen and the carbon monoxide are then separated and the oxygen stored.

MOXIE is one of seven major experiments be flown on the US$1.9 billion Mars 2020 mission, which is scheduled to fly in July 2020. Based on the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover currently exploring the Gale Crater region of the planet. The other instruments are intended to study Mars, but MOXIE stands out because it’s more of a practical experiment.

"If you were one of those astronauts depending on an oxygen tank for your ride home, I think you’d like to see it tested on Mars before you go," says Hecht. "We want to invest in a simple prototype before we are convinced. We've never run a factory on Mars. But this is what we’re doing; we’re running a prototype factory to see what problems we might come up against."

According to MIT, if MOXIE is successful, a scaled up version could be of great help to future explorers in providing oxygen for breathing and fuel. One scenario could see a nuclear-powered robotic plant sent ahead to produce and stockpile oxygen ready to be used when astronauts arrive.

Source: MIT

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About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy
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13 Comments

Is it just me or is NASA seemingly completely unaware of Mars One who plan to have the first human settlers on Mars in 2024 a mere 4 years after this planned Mars mission? Isn't a bit pointless given that Mars One will, by 2020, have started installing the habitation modules and ancillary life support systems for their human settlement by 2020?

Or does Nasa just think Mars One is a big marketing scam? Or what? It's beginning to seem a bit bizarre. MW

Martin Winlow

It is always valuable to have contingency plans and backups. Mars One plans to have the first human settlers on Mars in 2024. It might happen or it might not.

pspasov

In short, yes, Mars One is an intersection of a scam & naive idealists. Although NASA might indulge fantastic possibilities like the artist concept for an Alcubierre warp drive starship, the real money goes towards practical considerations for things that might actually happen within the foreseeable future.

the.other.will

Personally, I want to know what the heck they intend to do with all the Carbon Monoxide generated as the secondary product of the Oxygen separation. Making the atmosphere even more toxic doesn't seem like a great idea.

kman

I find the idea of a Mars colonization in 2024 extremely optimistic.

The author suggests to fly to Mars would require a space ship about the size of a small aircraft carrier to just carry the supplies (food, water, oxygen, fuel, etcetera). I am not sure of the size of such a ship but it is extremely big. I question those requirements save for fuel. As the Russian cosmonauts proved you can reuse virtually everything except fuel. Grow food on the ship, use urine and feces for fertilizer and replacement nutrients, filter urine for water, etcetera. What I do see needing to be carried is a supplies for when Mars is reached and major construction materials and equipment. So yes, a dreadnaught sized space ship might still be needed. This dreadnaught will have to be constructed in space as there are no known form of boosters possible to perform a launch of a 27000 ton (very small carrier Juan Carlos I (L61)) payload.

Before any hope of long term human habitation on Mars can exist, there must be permanent structures including a structure to provide more air. While the structure might be sealed and resources reusable, I would hope if we are to spend expand the facility, mine resources, develop some form of agriculture, ... Every time the inhabitants leave the structure, they would release some of their internal air, and that must be replaced. Unless the "settlers" can form perfect seals with the ground and expansion is strictly underground, this will remain a critical danger.

I would therefore expect at extreme minimum 20-30 year construction project for the dreadnaught based on how fast the international space station is being built. Further allowing regular shuttles to and from Mars with landing craft capable of delivering sealed buildings, construction and mining equipment, soil, water, oxygen collection and storage devices, smelting, mold making and machining equipment, a small mountain of metals including copper, gold, silver, aluminum, ... ... iron, and several grades of steel to build the anything discovered needed not transported. True, the ship could be a source of many of these but then do we want to have to keep building new ships.

Before any form of permanent settlement can be established a space port of size sufficient for landing, refueling, and launching must be built. I am assuming that the settlers will not be sent their with no hope of producing output that is usable here on earth. The only reason to send only one way is to establish a permanent extra location for man in the event of a extinction event on earth. If that is the hope, a lot more will need to be sent to Mars in support of the colony. Further the colony size must be much larger, preferably at least 100 fertile mated pairs.

NatalieEGH

Is it just me and Martin Winlow ? NASA seems to be mounting a PR campaign to short-circuit the work that is being done by Mars One. NASA should get out of the Mars exploration business and leave it up to Mars One. Hey, are there any whistleblowers at NASA who can attest to an effort by NASA to defeat the efforts of private organizations to get to Mars ?

99gusPuppet

If this doesn't work, they could just use electrolysis to crack the water ice below the ground and end up with oxygen and hydrogen.

You can use the water as is (well, filtered) for drinking, and when split into oxygen/hydrogen can be used for breathing and combined with the hydrogen to power rockets. The hydrogen could also be used in fuel cells for powering various equipment and vehicles.

Also, another group has already tested a device (here on earth in a simulated Martian atmosphere) that could convert the atmosphere into a fuel. I believe it was methane.

KushSmoka420

If all you need is oxidizer for the return trip by using magnesium or aluminum as the fuel you could then use unmodified C02 as the oxidizer.

Slowburn

As we explore further into space we will find it impossible to keep refueling space ships with oxygen from out home planet; be it Earth or Mars. What will happen when we start to voyage out to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Pluto? We will have to develop the technologies that would make planetary cities, settlements, Orbital stations, research centers, extra-planetary observatories, and space docks self reliant on the basic necessities of life; water, air and gravity. So what technologies are need in order to provide the basics for homo sapiens survival in the harsh environment of space. As our ancestors fought for land, fraternity and equality; we fight for air, water and gravity.

Kristianna Thomas

@Kristianna Thomas: There are moons of Jupiter and Saturn that have oxygen we can use.

Chishiki

I know the focus has always been on extracting Oxygen from the martian atmosphere but one critical issue never discussed is the fact of maintaining a pressurised environment where the loss of pressure will cause death. No one has discussed where we will get the inert gas to replace the nitrogen lost through one the nitrogen cycle in a habitat growing plants or to maintain pressure every time you evacuate a lock and re pressurise this if people leave or enter the habitat. These will have to be flushed to prevent contamination of the habitat atmosphere with trace gasses such carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. For a 300 m3 habitat you would need 22k m3 per year in losses barring loss of containment this is just going outside twice a day and 10% loss. Any loss of containment and the need to maintain pressure. Air supply to breath while out side for 2 person 4 hours per day could equal 5k m3 per year although some rebreather that adds oxygen and scrubs CO2 would most likely be used. You will have to make Oxygen from the thin atmosphere which is probably doable although separating the minute fraction in large enough quantities will be difficult on a large enough scale. I think MIT should be researching some form of combines Oxygen Nitrogen combined separator the Oxygen can then be further separated into air and the residual O2 for fuel without the Nitrogen we will not maintain Habitat pressure integrity. Alge can be used in an enclosed algae growth and harvesting system to remove co2 and produce both food and biofuel and perhaps residual Oxygen. The question of habitat that will provide protection agains radiation and Insulation is another issue. If some machine could be sent that could excavate tunnels This would provide a far greater more versatile habitat providing radiation protection and heat insulation be more easily expandable the walls could be sprayed with a sealant to make the system gas tight. We cannot rely on being able to carry lots of complex habitat creating modules that will be subject to damage on landing. I see some sort of solar power providing initial power Thin film flexible will be less prone to damage and be lighter for an equivalent area. Perhaps developments in solar paint

Sam Dalton

@Martin & Puppet: Yes, NASA thinks the Mars One initiative is a pipe dream and, frankly, so do I. They talk a lot, but they haven't even begun to address the technical problems--not a single one of them, and there are lots. All they do is PR. Hey, I have an idea: let's send a mission to Tau Ceti by 2030! I'll make a press release and some posters, set up a website and start screening volunteers who want to go! Make sure every candidate pays me a fee for applying!

Freederick

Has anyone noticed how scrupulously NASA, MIT, and everyone involved avoids crediting Robert Zubrin and the Mars Direct program? This idea of extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere has been advocated by Zubrin as early as 1990, and the chemical and technical details have been worked out as far as actually making a prototype processing system, not just for oxygen, but for fuel as well. The logistics of locally-producing oxygen and fuel on Mars have also been researched in details by Zubrin and his collaborators. Mars Direct is a well-known and publicized program, not just some garage inventor. Why no mention?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Direct

Freederick
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