When astronauts breathe on Mars, they'll thank MIT professor

Researchers building device that will create oxygen on the Red Planet

Someday, when astronauts are living and working on Mars, they'll be able to thank MIT's Michael Hecht for their ability to breathe on the Red Planet. They'll also have to give a nod to him for the oxygen needed to launch the rocket to bring them back to Earth.

MIT's Michael Hecht
Michael Hecht, a researcher at MIT, is helping to build an instrument that will create oxygen on Mars. (Image: MIT)

"There's zero way a human could breathe on Mars," Hecht, a researcher at MIT, told Computerworld. "But the oxygen also is for the return rocket. That's the hungry beast we have to feed.... To bring that much oxygen along, it's certainly not impossible but it makes the mission substantially more expensive and complicated. What's the point where the mission gets so expensive that it just won't happen?

"Unless we find ways - shortcuts -- to make this something that people can grasp as being worthwhile, it won't happen," he added. "This plays a big part of expanding our horizons beyond Earth."

Late last week, NASA announced the seven new and improved scientific instruments that will be on board the next robotic rover to head to Mars in 2020. Along with high-tech cameras and ground-penetrating radar, one of the instruments on the rover will be a machine that will create oxygen.

By creating oxygen on the planet, humans will be able to breathe while they explore and possibly even set up a habitat.

Dubbed MOXIE - short for Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment -- the instrument is designed to take carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and use it to produce oxygen. MIT describes it as a specialized reverse fuel cell that will consume electricity so it can produce oxygen on Mars, where the atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide.

MOXIE will have a big job since the Martian atmosphere is so different than the one on Earth.

The Martian atmosphere is only about 1% as dense as Earth's atmosphere; it's about the same density as the Earth's atmosphere 100,000 feet above the surface.

"Here, we'd consider it almost a vacuum," said Hecht. "That's how little of it there is and it's 95% or 96% carbon dioxide or 30 times more CO2 than on the surface of Earth. CO2 is a trace gas on Earth. On Mars, there's very little air overall, but it's mostly CO2."

At this point, the plan is to send an inflatable dome to Mars where a MOXIE-like machine could inflate it with oxygen.

"This is how we keep it within that [acceptable mission] range -- find this shortcut instead of having the astronauts bring the oxygen with them," said Hecht. "We send a small nuclear reactor to Mars and we send one of these oxygen facilities, which would be 100 times larger than Moxie, which produces 20 grams an hour of oxygen. You want something that produces about a pound of oxygen in an hour."

For MOXIE, the robotic machine simply needs to start sucking carbon dioxide out of the Martian atmosphere to get going.

"It's put down as is," said Hecht. "It's turned on and starts working. The reason we want to use this process, using carbon dioxide and electricity, is because we don't want to start digging up dirt and processing it. That's not as far fetched as it sounds. There's a mission planned to try that on the moon. It can be done but it takes a lot of robotics because you're excavating, you're drilling, you're getting rid of the slag. It's like making steel on earth."

Creating oxygen out of dirt is possible because silica, one of the most abundant oxides in dirt, has two oxygen atoms. Dirt, according to Hecht, is mostly oxygen.

Hecht said the Mars rover 2020 will test MOXIE during its mission to the Red Planet. Only enough oxygen will be stored to prove that the instrument works.

If the experiment does work, scientists will design a larger version of MOXIE for use ahead of a planned mission to send humans to Mars. NASA is focused on trying to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s and is building the heavy-lift rockets, robotics and spacecraft needed to get humans into deep space.

"I've always felt that the path to success is its simplicity in design," said Hecht. "I believe we have that. I can't say we have all the details worked out, but it's straightforward. What it will take to make it work successfully is lots and lots of testing and fixing and improving as you go along. The biggest challenge is to have the insight, the capability and the determination to give the system a chance to fail in testing, being willing to change things and being creative in fixing it when it does fail."

Right now, Hecht figures they have about five years to perfect the instrument.

The project has a science team, made up of researchers from the likes of MIT, the University of Arizona and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) dedicated to architecting the instrument. There's also an engineering team, largely based at JPL, that will do the actual building.

"It's not that much sci-fi," said Hecht. "It's a matter of having the political will. It's a matter of taking the excitement in this adventure to attract the best and brightest minds and putting them to work."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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