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NASA’s Perseverance rover split CO2 to make breathable air on Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover just created a breath of fresh air on Mars. An experimental device on the rover split carbon dioxide molecules into their component parts, creating about 10 minutes’ worth of breathable oxygen. It was also enough oxygen to make tiny amounts of rocket fuel.

The instrument, called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), is about the size of a toaster. Its job is to break oxygen atoms off carbon dioxide, the primary component of Mars’ atmosphere. It’s like “an electrical tree,” says principal investigator Michael Hecht of MIT. “We breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen.”

MOXIE flew to Mars with Perseverance, which arrived on the Red Planet on February 18. On April 20, the instrument warmed up to about 800° Celsius and ran for long enough to produce five grams of oxygen. That’s not enough to breathe for very long. But the main reason to make oxygen on Mars isn’t for breathing, Hecht says. It’s for making fuel for the return journey to Earth.

“When we burn anything, gas in the car or a log in the fireplace, most of what we’re burning is oxygen,” Hecht says. On Earth, we take all that oxygen for granted. “It’s free here. We don’t think about it.”

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