NASA announced that the Mars Ingenuity helicopter had completed its second groundbreaking flight after making history earlier this week with the first powered flight on another earth.
Under its latest Mars rover mission, the space agency said that it had achieved another extraterrestrial first on its new trip to Mars: turning carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into pure, breathable oxygen.
An experimental robot onboard the Mars Rover Perseverance, a six-wheeled research rover that landed on Mars on Feb. 18 after a seven-month trip from Earth, accomplished the unparalleled retrieval of oxygen from thin air on Mars on Tuesday.
The toaster-sized instrument called MOXIE, short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment provided about 5 grams of oxygen in its first activation, NASA said. That's about 10 minutes of breathing for an astronaut.
Although the initial results were modest, the achievement marked the first experimental mining of natural resources from another planet's ecosystem for direct human use.
In a tweet, Trudy Kortes, director of technology demos for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said, "MOXIE isn't just the first tool to manufacture oxygen on another planet." It was the first technology of its kind, she said, that would enable potential missions to "live off the soil" of another world.
The instrument operates by electrolysis, which uses high heat to remove oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide ions, which make up about 95 percent of Mars' atmosphere.
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The remaining 5% of Mars' atmosphere is all molecular nitrogen and argon, even though it is just around 1% as solid as Earth's. On Mars, there is just a trace amount of oxygen.
However, an abundant supply is considered essential for future human exploration of Mars, both as a source of breathable air for astronauts and as a component of rocket fuel to return them home.
The amount of material used to launch rockets into space from Mars is incredibly overwhelming.
NASA estimates that it will require 15,000 pounds of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds of oxygen to get four astronauts off the Martian soil.
MOXIE principal investigator Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in a NASA press release that transporting a one-ton oxygen-conversion pump to Mars is more feasible than carrying 25 tons of oxygen in tanks from Earth.
Hecht estimates that astronauts living and working on Mars will take around one metric ton of oxygen between them to last a year.
As a proof of concept, MOXIE is built to produce up to 10 grams per hour, and scientists intend to run the machine at least nine more times over the next two years under various conditions and speeds, according to NASA.
The first oxygen conversion run took place only one day after NASA successfully took off and landed a miniature robot helicopter on Mars, making history the first controlled powered flight by an aircraft on another earth.
The twin-rotor chopper called Ingenuity, like MOXIE, hitched a ride to Mars with Perseverance, whose primary goal is to look for fossilized remains of ancient microbes that could have thrived billions of years ago on Mars.
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