Why NASA making oxygen on Mars is a huge deal

Why NASA making oxygen on Mars is a huge deal
FILE PHOTO: Wheel tread marks are left in the soil of Jezero Crater on Mars, as NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance drives on Martian surface for the first time, in this March 4, 2021 image supplied to Reuters. Image taken March 4, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS

Us humans have been dreaming about making it to the planet Mars for pretty much as long as we’ve been able to see the thing. But now, we’re getting pretty close to actually being able to do that, and depending on who you listen to, it might even happen in the next 15 years.

But deciding what to pack for your trip to Mars is no easy task. Sure, you might bring along all nine seasons of “The Office” and a stuffed animal to watch it with, but far more critical than Mr. Snugglekins is, well, the oxygen you’ll need to stay alive.

Fortunately, the good folks at NASA and MIT have been working on a solution so that astronauts won’t have to bring too much oxygen to the planet with them, which could be really expensive. How does that work? Well, keeping in mind that Mars’ atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, the basic idea is you separate the carbon atom from the oxygen atoms, and voila, you have the stuff we breathe.

And a recent study published by researchers at MIT showed that the project they worked on with NASA, called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (aka MOXIE), actually works. The version they tested out was about the size of a toaster, and it went along to Mars with the Perseverance rover that landed on the red planet last year.

The little machine produced about six grams of oxygen an hour, which is the same output as a small tree. If you’re doing the math, that’s not enough to sustain a human, but the idea was really a proof of concept and will be scaled up going forward.

This is a huge deal, though. It means that space agencies can save a bunch of weight by not carrying all that equipment and oxygen over. And keep in mind that while oxygen is good for breathing, it’s also used in rocket fuel, so this also means saving weight from the gas we won’t have to send over.

Basically, they won’t have to kick Mr. Snugglekins off the rocket because there’s no space, and that’s what matters.